Local News

Spending cruise tax money prolongs Assembly meeting

Sitka | Last night’s regular meeting of the Sitka Assembly is not over.

The Assembly went into recess at 11 p.m., as required by city code, after finding itself without enough time to work through the agenda. The meeting will resume at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

The agenda had 15 items, but most of last night’s meeting centered on just one: how to spend money from a tax on cruise passengers.

Faced with 15 different proposals on what to do with the money, the Assembly narrowed the list down to seven, and decided to discuss each one individually. That took 2.5 hours.

The city of Sitka has about $2.9 million in the bank from a statewide tax imposed on cruise ship passengers. That number is expected to be closer to $3.3 million by the end of the fiscal year.

Getting the money into the bank is relatively easy compared to distributing it. Anyone can propose a project for the money, but it can only be spent on things that directly benefit the safety, transportation or efficiency of cruise visitors.

The Assembly approved just two of the 15 projects placed before it last night. The Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau will get a maximum of $6,000 to staff an information desk for cruise passengers. The other proposal approved last night would use the tax money to subsidize shuttle service between downtown and a private cruise ship dock near the end of Halibut Point Road.

Just how that will happen, or how much it will cost, has not been determined. The idea is to spend about $3 per passenger, but the exact funding mechanism will depend on the proposals the city receives for the work.

Chris McGraw is with Halibut Point Marine Services, the company that owns the large dock. He submitted the proposal to subsidize shuttle service, and says it will help attract vessels to the dock, and hopefully bring more passengers to downtown businesses.

“Merchants are feeling the pinch. Tour operators are feeling the pinch. And city sales tax revenues have dropped,” he said. “This proposal has the opportunity to increase the number of passengers that spend money in Sitka with our current ships that come here. It’s a proven fact that more passengers get off when they go to a dock.”

Right now, ships anchor in the sound, and passengers are lightered to shore aboard boats. Fred Reeder, the Sitka representative for Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, says about 20 percent of passengers stay aboard ship at a port without a dock. But if they have the option of walking off the ship, only about 5 percent stay behind.

“There are a lot of other benefits. The number of jobs it’ll create, just on the outside is probably about 20 jobs – bus drivers and longshoremen,” Reeder said. “I’ve gone through that with the Assembly before. We would highly support this.”

The Chamber of Commerce also supports the measure.

But some Assembly members weren’t so sure. Terry Blake voted against the plan, after asking what ships using the private dock would pay in moorage fees. Cheryl Westover added on to that, expressing concern that the plan would take ships away from paying fees to the city for use of the lightering docks, although she ended up voting yes. With Blake the lone dissenter, the proposal passed, 6 to 1. The initial run of the project is for two years.

Other projects up for consideration last night were not as successful. The Assembly postponed crosswalk enhancements to Lincoln Street, along with suggestions for creating a summer youth work crew and setting up recycling kiosks around town. It didn’t even discuss the other ideas on the list, including a mural under O’Connell Bridge, a floating cruise ship moorage, or parking lot resurfacing for Fortress of the Bear.

Pedestrian improvements for the intersection of Lake and Lincoln streets went down to unanimous defeat, as did a proposal to build a public fishing pier and hatchery work float at the Sitka Sound Science Center.

The plan called for a pier near the far side of the Crescent Harbor breakwater. Lisa Busch is executive director of the Science Center.

“And we think that it would create a saltwater fishing experience downtown that would be really special for tourists and children and residents,” Busch said. “But we also feel that it would be an important safety improvement, because right now from my window at the Science Center, I see lots of tourists hobbling down the breakwater, and children. So I think it definitely fits into the safety category, and it’s a pedestrian walkway, so as far as transportation goes.”

The proposal also calls for a release of Chinook smolt from the Northern Southeast Aquaculture Association, or NSRAA, which would ensure the fish returned to the Science Center area in subsequent years. Steve Reifenstuhl is general manager of NSRAA.

“Tourists would use it. They use it now. And if you had a dock down to the water and there were Chinook salmon, they’d go wild,” he said. “They go wild in Juneau, they go wild when they come out via boat. They’re not even fishing. This would allow them to fish; by just seeing the fish, they love it.”

But Assembly member Mike Reif said it didn’t sound to him like the proposal fell within the legal confines of how the money can be spent.

“And the law talks about safety, efficiency, transportation. Being a charter captain, I can see tourists getting wild about fish. I see it when I bring them on my boat,” Reif said. “But this money is not to provide a shoreside excursion, and what I hear being described sounds like a shoreside excursion. It’s not really to transport them to your facility, like the seawalk does. It’s to allow them to have a nice diversion.”

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett disagreed, saying if you look hard enough in the law, there’s always a reason to say “no.”

“You can eliminate everything that comes through if you want to, on those three criteria. I haven’t been at the session these guys went to, but I think this is going to go a long ways,” Hackett said. “If the cruise ship industry really wants to come back and sue all the communities for these individual projects that they’re doing – I don’t really see that as something that’s going to happen. I’m a little concerned about the criteria being so rigid that our hands are completely tied.”

Hackett also had concerns about the process by which the projects were recommended. The proposals are solicited from the public, discussed in public, and then decided on by a committee, whose meetings aren’t generally advertised.

“It doesn’t help me to see ‘recommend approval’ or ‘recommend disapproval,’ and that, I think, is one of the problems with this process, and I think it’s one of the problems that the public is having – that it’s not transparent,” she said.

Frustration toward the process grew as the two-and-a-half hour discussion continued, though not necessarily about transparency. The conversation ate up so much time that when it was over, the Assembly rushed through as many agenda items as it could before the mandatory end to the meeting at 11 p.m.

At one point, Mayor Cheryl Westover said next year, the process will have its own special meeting.

Tuesday night’s meeting is set to continue at 6 p.m. Thursday, when the Assembly finishes off five more agenda items it couldn’t complete during the regular time.

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