Note: Alaska Public Media receives funding from the Alaska Mental Health Trust.
Allison Biastock, chief communications officer for the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, is clomping over frozen mossy ground on a patch of land between the Seward Highway and the Alaska Railroad tracks in Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula.
Jusdi Warner, Executive Director of the Trust Land Office, and I follow behind her. Warner and Biastock said they expect this parcel to be one of their most competitive auctions.
“Beautiful, beautiful views,” Warner said. “A slanting slope, a good spot to put a cabin. There is electrical that runs to this parcel.”
It’s one of 36 pieces of land being auctioned off by the land office in Alaska this year. This land is part of a million acres given to the trust by the state after the Mental Health Enabling Act of 1956 transferred responsibility from the federal government to the state to provide mental health care.
“We manage those lands for the Alaska Mental Health Trust, to generate revenue for Alaskans who experience developmental disabilities and behavioral health conditions,” Warner said.
The trust makes money from the land in several ways, including selling mineral and timber resources.
“We have land down in southeast Alaska that we plan to harvest timber on and hopefully, once that old growth is harvested, the young growth will also be harvested and will provide a perpetual income source for the trust,” Warner said.
The aim of the land office is to manage the land resources to provide stable funding for beneficiary programs now and in perpetuity. The beneficiaries are anyone in Alaska with mental illness, developmental disabilities, alcoholism and other substance-related disorders, dementia, and traumatic brain injuries. It’s a unique model; no other state has a trust set up to fund mental health programs or serve beneficiaries.
Warner said the land office always evaluates the property for resources first. And then, only when it makes the most financial sense, they consider selling it for residential use. They’ve run land auctions for 26 years and in that time they’ve sold off less than 3% of those original million acres.
The land originally given to the trust all had to be surveyed, so it was usually near established communities. Some of those Trust lands are used by those communities for fishing, hunting, and access to other land, so, they may be opposed to the trust selling it.
Bob Lynn is an assembly member and vice mayor in Petersburg, Southeast Alaska. He said he supports the aim of the trust, but he’s worried about some of the lots up for auction this year in Petersburg borough.
“There are several of these lots that are not big enough to be able to put in a septic system and some of them are configured such that you still couldn’t do it or that you were going to drain your sewage onto your neighbor,” Lynn said.
Warner said they’ve worked with communities in the past who had concerns about parcels and sometimes they work with them so they can submit competitive bids. But ultimately, their responsibility is to the Trust beneficiaries now and into the future.
“We work toward aligning community interests with the trust interests, but at times those alignments don’t always see eye to eye,” Warner said. “And at that point, the Trust has to do what’s in its best interest and for the beneficiaries.”
The money from land sales doesn’t go straight to funds for beneficiaries. The aim is to create budget consistency and long-term financial sustainability. So, for each land sale, the proceeds go to the trust fund which is managed by the Permanent Fund.
“We have over $800 million now that sits in the Alaska Permanent Fund, that they manage for the trust, and we receive 4.25% off of that, and that is called spendable income for the trust,” Warner said. “That is how our budgets are funded for the agency.”
The 4.25% draw goes to pay salaries for trust employees and beneficiary programs. Last year the annual percentage draw created a budget of $35.5 million for the Trust and over $26 million of that went to grants for programs that serve beneficiaries.
“That can be anything from increasing addiction treatment bed capacity, down to a mini grant for beneficiaries through partner agencies… in support of improvement of their quality of life, through home modifications or technology improvements,” Warner said.