Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly was dominated by one agenda item: whether drivers should pay more to fund the city’s roads.
A clearly conflicted assembly voted four to three in favor of a proposal that would increase vehicle registration fees and dedicate that money to maintaining Sitka’s road system. But the ordinance will come before the assembly at least two more times, and it’s not at all clear whether it will make it into law.
There was one big number lurking in the background of Tuesday night’s discussion: $2.7-million. That’s the amount the city estimates it will need, each year for the next 25 years, to keep Sitka’s roads paved. The big question is where that money will come from.
Mayor Mim McConnell said that the assembly has been wrestling with that question since she first joined five years ago, without making much progress.
“Taking care of our roads has been an issue from the very beginning,” she said. “Trying to figure out where the money is going to come from has been an issue from the very beginning. And we just go round and around and around, and we need to stop doing that, and we need to move forward.”
The vehicle tax is one attempt to move forward. The city estimates that it could bring in about $670,000 a year — about a quarter of what’s needed.
On July 22, the assembly passed a proposal on first reading that would add a $100 per year fee for noncommercial vehicles. Commercial vehicle-owners would see a new fee of $200 per year. Motorcyclists would see an increase of $25 per year.
Assembly members said that they’d received public feedback both for and against that proposal. But the four members of the public spoke on Tuesday night were unanimously opposed.
Sitka resident Lindsay Evans said she’d done the math, and the new fees would cost her family of four about $225 each year.
“$225 a year is groceries. It’s our utility bill. And it’s extra money that will be taken out of donations to our nonprofits around town,” Evans said. “I find it almost impossible to include that in our already tight budget. It is time for our city to really look at who this is going to affect. I can tell you right now that it’s going to be families like mine.”
So the ordinance that the assembly considered this time around was a little bit different. It would still implement the vehicle registration fee. But it would also put a measure before voters in October 2015, with an alternate tax, one that would raise the same amount of revenue. If the measure passed, that alternate tax would go into place instead of the vehicle tax. If the measure failed, the vehicle tax would go into effect, as scheduled, in January 2016.
That alternate tax would be decided by a committee of assembly members and members of the public. City attorney Robin Koutchak mentioned a few possibilities, including a city fuel tax, or even a tax on marijuana if a statewide ballot initiative legalizing the substance passes in November.
But Assembly Member Matt Hunter said he didn’t like the idea of giving voters an ultimatum.
“You’re saying ‘Do this, or else,’” he said. “Like, ‘Vote for this new tax, or we’re going to have this worse tax.’ I don’t like that.”
But Assembly Member Phyllis Hackett said that unless there is some kind of consequence, Sitkans are likely to vote down any new tax.
“I hate to be a naysayer, but we’re not very good about wanting to pay our taxes to support our services. We don’t really want to do that,” Hackett said. “If we didn’t have this “hostage” type of situation, if we didn’t have the situation of ‘This or that,’ we come to 2015 and once again it’s voted down, then we’re back to the drawing board and we start this process over again.”
Assembly member Pete Esquiro suggested several changes to the tax, lowering the amount paid by non-commercial vehicles to $125 every two years and raising the amount paid by commercial vehicles to $450 every two years. He also proposed a $25 biennial fee for bicycles, but the assembly abandoned that idea after City Administrator Mark Gorman explained that there is no simple way to collect that fee.
In the end, Mayor McConnell and assembly members Ben Miyasato, Mike Reif and Esquiro voted yes, while Hackett, Hunter and Aaron Swanson voted no.
Nobody seemed very happy with the outcome. McConnell echoed several assembly members who said they were voting ‘yes’ just to keep the conversation going.
“If we can come up with some good solutions over the next month or so,” she said. “Maybe this one can just go away.”
Sitkans interested in joining the committee on alternate taxes should contact the Mayor, at firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Municipal Clerk at (907) 747-1811.
You can find more coverage of the Sitka Assembly here.