Columns 2015

The North Slope Borough… we do things differently

This Saturday. Bird TLC will be holding its annual farewell to our migratory bird friends at an event called “Gone With The Wings”. I’d planned to write about the event but then another article about the North Slope Borough hit the paper and I felt a great sense of obligation to try and explain, if possible, that things are done differently up north. It’s something I spent almost ten years as the borough’s public information officer trying to explain to the outside world. It’s not easy.

So, let me just urge you to go to the Bird TLC property above Potter’s Marsh on Saturday between 12 and 4 and get up close and personal with eagles and owls and crows, to name just a few. There will be food, games and, weather permitting, a rehabilitated great horned owl and possibly a merlin will be released.

Now let’s move on to the issue of how to explain the North Slope Borough to people who have never lived there… and possibly, to some who have.

The first thing you have to understand is that Slope residents do not view the borough in quite the same way as people here view the Municipality of Anchorage. While most of the country views varying levels of government as necessary for the execution of a variety of activities such as public safety, road maintenance and such, people on the North Slope view the borough as something very much more close and personal. It’s not a governmental body absent from their daily lives except when it’s time to pay taxes. For starts, most people on the North Slope don’t fund the borough. The oil industry’s property taxes do. This makes spending the money on basketball camps a lot easier.

North Slope people view the borough as very much “theirs” in a way that can only be understood by understanding their cultural values. The Inupiat have a communal culture because that’s what survival required. There was no concept of land ownership until outsiders introduced it. The Inupiat view the land and seas and the commodities therein as belonging to everyone. Everyone has access to the bounty of the sea and everyone hunts caribou, birds and moose on land. No one “owns” those resources.

But then the outside world came along and introduced the concept that some resources could be owned, extracted and utilized by only certain groups. The wealth resulting from this extraction ended up in the coffers of the North Slope Borough as tax dollars.

So the people of the North Slope view the borough as the repository of dollars that, in fact, are there to be shared with everyone. Keep in mind that the borough’s annual budget for about 9000 people is almost as much as the Anchorage Municipality has for hundreds of thousands of people. You have to work hard to spend all that money.

I am not trying to justify why the current mayor’s daughter was earning thousands of dollars making cakes for departments headed by her sisters. Even for the North Slope, that’s somewhat egregious. But you also need to understand that the borough is the main employer on the North Slope. Not only does the borough fund itself, but it also funds the school district and Ilisagvik College.  Trying to find someone who does not have multiple relatives working for some part of the borough is damn near impossible. Given the deep extent and reach of the borough, some conflicts of interest are simply unavoidable.

Not everyone always agrees with the way the borough spends its money. This is especially true if you were on the wrong side of the winning ticket in the last election. But things tend to even out over time up north. In the end, everyone usually gets their piece of the pie, even if their piece is occasionally somewhat smaller than some others.

The North Slope Borough has a huge tax base compared to the number of people living there. They have chosen to use that money to pay for the little extras like basketball camps that most people can’t afford on their own. This is not necessarily something that could be done in a larger municipality. But the borough is such an every present reality in most people’s lives there that it seems more like a family business than a governmental entity.  And Inupiat families share.