The Assembly advanced some changes to the city’s fish box tax on Wednesday night.
That tax requires charter operators to pay $10 per fish box, with the money going to the city’s harbor department, general fund and for fish enhancement.
But how much money goes to each area could change, and some on the Assembly are suggesting the fish box tax could go away entirely.
The original plan was to take all of the fish box tax money away from fisheries enhancement programs, like hatcheries.
Erin Long proposed the fish box tax in 2006, collected signatures, and campaigned for its passage. She’s in California right now, but heard about the proposal to take the money away from fisheries enhancement.
Long said taking the tax money away from fish enhancement would defeat the purpose of the tax. In an interview before Wednesday night’s meeting, she said she would try to repeal the tax if the Assembly eliminated the hatchery fund.
“I will personally go out and go with all the charter people and get signatures again, to get this on the ballot just to have the whole tax exempt.” she said. “No more fish box tax whatsoever.”
She might not have to fight that battle. After hearing public testimony, Mayor Cheryl Westover changed her proposal. It now calls for giving 20 percent of the fish box tax money to hatcheries. That’s down from the current 30 percent. But those in favor of supporting the hatcheries with the tax say it’s better than zero.
“We’re not here as the Sitka Sound Science Center asking for our fisheries enhancement program, but for all fisheries enhancement programs,” said Nancy LeClerc Davidson.
She’s on the board of the science center, which runs a small hatchery. About 17 percent of the center’s hatchery budget comes from the fish box tax.
“We got $33,000 from this fish box tax, and that makes a big difference in a small budget, and a small difference in a big budget,” she said.
The money, she says, is important to help fledgling programs get off the ground. Assembly member Pete Esquiro ran the much larger Northern Southeast Aquaculture Association for 30 years. NSRAA has three hatcheries and other aquaculture programs. Esquiro cited his background and asked LeClerc Davidson and fellow board member Scott Harris whether they were looking at the fish box tax as a permanent source of money. Harris said they have no plans to use the fish box tax money indefinitely.
Westover said she wanted to move extra fish box tax money away from hatcheries and into the harbors because of new regulations that require fish waste to be disposed of far from shore. Paying a company to haul the waste from city fish cleaning stations has cost $40,000, Westover said.
But Assembly member Thor Christianson argued that keeping the money in enhancement makes it more palatable to the charter customers who end up paying it.
“Frankly,” Christianson said, “they don’t care about our harbors. But they care a lot about the fish they’re coming to catch, so I think it makes it a much easier pill to swallow for them.”
Theresa Weiser, who runs Alaska Premier Charters and the Wild Strawberry Lodge in Sitka, agreed with Christianson, although she said she’d like to see the tax disappear altogether. But if it does continue to exist, she likes the idea of some of it going for enhancement and harbors.
“It would certainly make me happy to see more of it going to the harbor fund, to facilitate a need there, if it’s got to go somewhere,” she said. “But I still like the idea of something going to the hatchery, because like Thor said, being able to tell our people … because the first thing we get asked is ‘What is this fund for? Why are you collecting it?’”
Westover said during the debate that she’s not a fan of the tax, which was approved by a citizen vote in 2006. She said she would even entertain the idea of eliminating it entirely. Christianson said it would be bad form for the Assembly to do that.
“I’m really hesitant to say something like ‘get rid it,’ mainly because it was a vote. It was not an Assembly move,” he said. “If it had been an Assembly move that would be very different.”
Terry Blake asked what it would take to get the tax repeal question on the fall ballot. That would take a resolution of the Assembly or a petition.