Eaglecrest general manager Dave Scanlan explains how the COVID-19 pandemic and abnormally low employee salaries posed challenges during the past year and how the ski area’s budget request for next year can help resolve them during a meeting of the Juneau Assembly’s Finance Committee on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Eaglecrest general manager Dave Scanlan explains how the COVID-19 pandemic and abnormally low employee salaries posed challenges during the past year and how the ski area’s budget request for next year can help resolve them during a meeting of the Juneau Assembly’s Finance Committee on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Pandemic impact, staffing shortages shape budget requests

Ski area, hospital and airport factor into Finance Committee meeting.

Stories of struggling staff and facilities told in spreadsheets: Bartlett Regional Hospital, Eaglecrest and Juneau’s airport hoping budget requests can help provide happy endings to tales of pandemic hardship and change

Bartlett Regional Hospital is suffering serious staff shortages and forced to pay salaries that are abnormally high. Eaglecrest is suffering serious staff shortages and forced to pay salaries that are abnormally low.

Both envision a solution involving emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic and favorable treatment by city leaders in next year’s budget.

Leaders from both the hospital and ski area, along with Juneau International Airport, presented their proposed budgets for the 2023 fiscal year to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly’s Finance Committee on Wednesday. Between the lines of the numerous spreadsheets shown on slides to the committee were narratives of how people affected — such as a skier who flies in and breaks a leg — fare now and how their fates might be better or worse depending on the actions of assembly members.

A common theme among all three entities — as with most agencies presenting budgets during weekly meetings that started in early April in a process that continues until mid-June — is an expected return to near-normal after two years of the COVID-19 pandemic will be beneficial, but also pose its own challenges due to lingering issues such as inflation.

At Eaglecrest, for example, the biggest requested increase in its proposed $3.29 million budget for the coming year is about $210,000 to boost employee wages that are so low the resulting staff shortages attracted nationwide news coverage. The low pay resulted in up to 90-minute waits lines at lifts and rental counters, and toward the end of the year the staff shortage was so dire (with four lift operators instead of the normal 12) it threatened to end the season early.

The Assembly agreed during the year to increase wages 7.5%, but Eaglecrest general manager Dave Scanlan said he’s seeking an additional 14% percent increase to match the national average for small ski areas.

The pay that was below the state’s minimum wage law until the recent increases because the law doesn’t apply to government workers and Eaglecrest is city-owned. Assembly Finance Committee Chair Carole Triem said she sympathizes with low-paid employees, but noted the ski area’s fees such as $62 for adult daily lift tickets are low compared to prices elsewhere.

“My question is why should it be the Assembly’s responsibility to pay that increase?” she said.

Scanlan said the ski industry has gone through a “huge revolution on pricing metrics” because two corporations now control 40% of the ski areas in the U.S. and an emphasis on maximizing season pass sales means daily ticket prices are being hiked to “astronomical rates” exceeding $200.

“We think there’s room to move pricing a little bit, but we’re trying to keep (community) accessibility,” he said.

As for Eaglecrest’s promoted employee perks of an end-of-season bonus and free ski pass, Scanlan said the bonuses are a rare thing used this year because of the shortage crisis and “with our dynamics they don’t get to use (free passes) because they’re working the (limited) days we’re open.”

One possible non-public aid is Goldbelt’s plan to provide up to $10 million to help fund installing a gondola and other upgrades that turn Eaglecrest into a year-round tourist destination, in exchange for a portion of the revenues. Scanlan said that, among other things, it might help establish affordable employee housing that would lure outside workers motivated more by the lure of working in Alaska than money.

Staffing shortages at the hospital

At Bartlett, the staffing problems share some similarities with the ski area in terms of shortages and difficulties in luring outsiders — but the impact on the bottom line is of an entirely different nature.

The COVID-19 pandemic either drove many health care employees from the industry or they became “travelers” who work for whomever is willing to pay them inflated wages, said Robert Tyk, Bartlett’s interim chief finance officer. The hospital was forced to rely significantly on such workers during the past year and, despite the purported post-pandemic return to normal – will likely need to use them during the cruise season this year.

“The hope is once that’s over we will start to wind that down and hopefully just use our own,” he said.

Even so, with new beds added to the medical and surgical units the hospital is expecting an increase in average patients per day from 16 this year to 34 next year, Tyk said. A total of 9,074 inpatient days are forecast for 2023, compared to 6,973 in 2021 and 7,980 this year.

“This is not the easiest place in the world to get to, so the ability to attract permanent people is difficult,” he said.

Failing to do so leads to some of the difficulties obtaining care that happened at times during the pandemic, Tyk said.

“One of the things you will find in health care is when hospitals say they are full, 95% of time it doesn’t mean there aren’t any beds,” he said. “It means there aren’t enough staff to manage patients.”

The hospital’s proposed $143.6 million budget for fiscal 2023 is more than $10 million lower than this year’s, even though nearly $7 million more in personnel costs are sought to cover additional staffing and a 2% cost-of-living wage increase. The reason is spending on support for capital projects is expected to drop from $25.5 million this year to $3 million in 2023. Unlike the major additions funded this year, the proposed budget includes $3 million for deferred maintenance plus funds for upgrades such as replacing the hospital’s aging MRI machine.

Airport expects more traffic

A huge increase in daily traffic is also expected to continue at the airport due to a revival in visitors as the pandemic wanes. Revenues at the airport took a huge jump this year to an expected $6.5 million compared to $4.5 million in fiscal 2021. Its proposed budget projects nearly $7.3 million in revenue in fiscal 2023 and $7.6 million in fiscal 2024.

“Increased travel numbers and increased aircraft operations means revenues rebounding to near pre-COVID levels in almost all revenue streams: Landing Fees, Fuel Flowage Fees, Security Screening Fees, Concession Fees and State Aviation Fuel,” a summary of the revenues notes.

But those increased revenues aren’t enough to cover the airport’s expenses, which are expected to be about $8.6 million this year, with requests for about $8.8 million for fiscal 2023 and $8.9 million in fiscal 2024.

“While FY23/24 will see cost savings through energy efficiencies (airport terminal and airfield facilities completely off diesel fuel), (there are) inflation costs in all costs centers especially for: airfield deicing chemicals/sand, general funds full cost allocations; and large increases to property/special policies insurance,” a summary notes.

To balance the 2023 and 2024 budgets the airport plans to rely on three federal coronavirus grants (known as CARES funding) totalling about $30.6 that since 2020 have been used for expenses, upgrades and rent relief to tenants. About $8.46 million in such funds remain and must be used within four years of being awarded, but Wahto emphasized they can only be used for certain purposes.

Because of that, the airport needs $690,000 in supplemental funding to cover the current year’s deficit, Airport Manager Patty Wahto said.

“We’ve done a lot of capital projects as well as maintenance within that which boosted our bottom line,” she said.

Also, the airport has about $20 million of future projects that are unfunded and ineligible for CARES funding, and needs an additional $2 million in local matching funds for FAA-approved projects in this year’s budget, Wahto said.

Her presentation to the committee lasted about 45 minutes, and the idea of trying to sort through the projects list and determine airport funding for the coming year based on that was

questioned by District 2 Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale. She said she feels the finance committee has made decisions before without detailed discussion and wondered when in the two-and-a-half-month budget process that should occur.

“If we want to discuss it is this the day to do that?” she asked.

The overviews by all the departments scheduled to continue until May 18 are meant to be informative – although questions can certainly be raised – after which the decision-making steps by the committee and full Assembly are scheduled to continue until the mandatory June 15 deadline to approve a final budget, City Finance Director Jeff Rogers said.

“You’ll have at least two more bites at the apple in terms of making a decision and you can talk about whatever you want at these meetings,” he said.

Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com.

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