The cost of keeping a boat in Sitka’s harbors will likely increase next year – by about 6%. The Sitka Assembly voted to raise moorage fees at its regular meeting on Tuesday night (12-10-13) – and the increase is probably the first of many.

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It currently costs $2.64/foot per month, to keep a boat moored permanently in Sitka’s harbors. That’s about $32/foot, per year.

The Sitka assembly voted on Tuesday night to increase that by 6.15 percent, to $2.80/foot per month, or just under $34 per year.

The increase would go into effect on January 1, 2014.

That means that a 45- foot boat would pay about $7 more per month in 2014: $126, up from $119 this year. In total, that boat would pay $1,512 in moorage fees in 2014, $86 more than this year.

The increase would bring in about $86,500 in additional revenue, according to city finance director Jay Sweeney.

Sweeney and public works director Michael Harmon said the increases are necessary to fund maintenance, services, and major improvements at the harbors. And to keep pace, the fees will have to keep increasing, every year for the foreseeable future.

“If the rate increases don’t continue for the next five years at 6.15 percent, you’re then faced with either borrowing more money to pay for that infrastructure, or delaying those projects farther out into the future,” Sweeney said.  “[You’re] taking the risk of even greater costs or some type of a substantial infrastructure failure.”

The city had initially proposed a much higher increase – the initial plan called for rates to increase by 28% next year. After local fishermen protested, city staff proposed the current, lower numbers.

But commercial fisherman Matt Donohoe said even the new numbers are too high.

“It’s getting very hard for a small boat fisherman to maintain their business in Sitka,” he said.

Donohoe said that boats might look elsewhere for cheaper harbors, pointing out that neighbors like Pelican or Hoonah already charge significantly less than Sitka. Hoonah, for instance, charges $19/foot per year; Pelican charges just $12. For comparison, Sitka’s rates come to about $32, per foot per year, before the increases.

“There are a lot of small boats in this community that are talking about leaving,” Donohoe said. ” I know that there’s probably no way to keep moorage rates from going up, it’s the way of the world. But there is a point in this curve where you will drive the fishing fleet away from this town. You may not think so, but, you will. You have to remember that.”

Sweeney and Harmon said the city doesn’t have a choice.

“No one likes price increases, but we have to consider what the alternative is and what the risk is of not attending to repairs when they’re needed,” Sweeney said. “I’ve asked the question myself, as a layman, what is the worst case scenario?…The worst case scenario, which is, infrastructure breaking apart and moving around in a storm with boats moored to them. And that is what we greatly fear.”

Several assembly members said they thought that the comparisons to other harbors were misleading, suggesting that other cities have the same infrastructure needs as Sitka, and will also have to raise their rates.

Assembly member Mike Reif said that even if that’s not the case, he doubted the math would work against Sitka.

“Being a commercial fisherman, I do spend just a bit of time under transient moorage in Pelican and also in Hoonah,” Reif said. “And I know, whatever I’m saving if I had a permanent stall there, would evaporate immediately when I try to fill up my fuel tank there, because it’s a dollar a gallon more. And if I could buy food in some of those communities it would be even more than the high cost of Sitka.”

“So, it’s the whole package, the cost of doing business in these communities. They can have the good harbor rates, but, boy, my wallet is a lot lighter when I leave those communities than it is in Sitka if the rates are higher.”

In the end, city officials and assembly members seemed to agree that larger increases might be necessary in the future.  Phyllis Hackett spoke for most of the assembly when she said, “I think if we can get where we need to go at 6.15% increase, we are pretty darn lucky. ”

The assembly voted unanimously to raise fees for 2014. The ordinance requires a second reading and vote before it goes into effect.