Alaska Natives seek aid for heating costs

Rising oil price hits struggling rural villages


FAIRBANKS, ALASKA - With the arrival of winter in rural Alaska, villages are facing a crisis brought on by the soaring price of fuel, Native leaders say.

Speaking at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks, leaders said prices sometimes exceeding $5 a gallon for stove oil are compounding the financial troubles of families, schools and local governments.

They said it was ironic because the state is looking at a surplus of $1.5 billion to $2 billion this year thanks to higher oil prices.

"The state itself has become rich, but it's come at the expense of our rural villages," said Buddy Brown, president of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. "This single issue has really been at the forefront of all our villages."

Gov. Frank H. Murkowski pledged Thursday to push for more assistance to help meet the rising costs of fuel.

In a speech before several thousand AFN delegates, Murkowski said he would seek more money in Juneau for rural power subsidies, emergency assistance for small municipalities, and a new state contribution to a federal program to help low-income homes pay for energy.

But he stopped short of offering to revive a program of municipal revenue sharing - something pushed by Native leaders and municipalities around the state. The governor said any such program has to be long-term and have a stable source of funds. He said he had offered such a plan using Alaska Permanent Fund earnings two years ago, but it was blocked by the state Senate.

"We've got to rally around," Murkowski said, asking delegates to support any such plan that emerges in the coming legislative session. Dedicating a percentage of earnings to municipalities would be a solution "not subject to politics, not subject to annual appropriations," he said.

In the past year, municipal governments in rural Alaska have cut back services - and in a few cases dissolved - because they no longer have money to operate. The rising costs of fuel and electricity are accelerating the trend, Native leaders said.

Despite the governor's call for a long-term program, one of his top aides said a short-term $25 million municipal assistance proposal is being drawn up.

Commerce Commissioner Bill Noll said the administration has been floating the idea lately with chambers of commerce and Native organizations, calling it a response to the problem of high energy costs.

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