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Assembly sours on sugar tax

SITKA, ALASKA

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If the tax on sugary beverages had gone on the ballot this fall and been approved, the money would have been used to fund a community recreation center.

 

Phyllis Hackett cosponsored the measure, along with Mim McConnell. Hackett said the idea for the tax began as a citizen’s initiative, but that a legal technicality required it to come from the Assembly.

 

“So this is one that I’m simply sponsoring,” Hackett said. “I’m not the maker of it in any way. I’m just allowing it to be there for discussion, and I think it’s a valuable discussion to hear all sides of this concern.”

 

And a discussion was exactly what happened.

 

Supporters of the measure said it will help cut down on consumption of sugary beverages, which is a leading cause of childhood obesity.

 

“Twenty-nine percent of Alaska 2-year-olds consume at least one soda or sugar-sweetened beverage per day,” said Sitka resident Gretchen Clarke. “That has a serious deleterious effect in terms of oral health or just general overall health. Taxes that increase the price of unhealthy items … are one of the most effective ways to reduce their purchase and consumption.”

 

Sitkan Steve Petro, on the other hand, said the tax goes too far.

 

“My Lord, we’re in a recession here,” Petro said. “I do not want to pay another $4 for a case of Coca-Cola, which I am going to continue to drink.”

 

Under the proposal, Petro might not have paid that money. The tax was would have been levied on distributors. But that raised another concern from Scott Calhoun, owner of Sitka Bottling.

 

“It’s singling out two companies in this town, and the grocery stores and other people can bring product into town that’s not going to be charged like we’re going to be charged,” he said.

 

So the Assembly amended the proposal to include grocery and convenience stores in the tax, but then came the question of enforcement and how much the city stood to benefit.

 

Assembly Member Reber Stein asked city finance director Dave Wolff if he could say how much money the tax might bring in.

 

“No,” Wolff replied, to laughter in the room. “Even with the amendment, it’s still unknown. If it’s powder, do you tax it on the ounce of powder, or do you tax it on the ounces of fluid that powder might make on the recommendation of the manufacturer? There are so many different things in here, for us to enforce it. My staff looked at that and said, ‘God, let’s hope it doesn’t go through, because we don’t have a clue where we’re going to start at.’”

 

The measure received more support from members of the public than it did opposition, and Hackett said she’d vote yes just to get the idea talked about. But as the complications continued to multiply, Hackett changed her mind.

 

“I’m just doing an about face. It’s just fraught with problems,” Hackett said. “I’m not going to say it’s a terrible, terrible idea, but I am going to say that I don’t believe it’s ready at this time to go forward. I think it needs a lot more work.”

 

McConnell, Hackett, and Assembly members Cheryl Westover and Larry Crews voted the measure down. Stein and Jack Ozment supported it. Mayor Scott McAdams recused himself because the money could have been used on Hames Wellness Center. McAdams works for the division of Sitka Schools that helps operate Hames.

 

Not every ballot proposal fared as poorly.

 

Sitkans will be voting on bonds to repair Blatchley Middle School, and on whether to use the 1 percent sales tax in the summer to help fund renovations at Pacific High School.

 

And, after a couple more meetings, Sitka voters could end up deciding whether to issue $6 million in bonds to buy and fix up the Hames Athletic and Wellness Center. That amount was reduced from the original proposal of $15 million.

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