Sitka’s car owners may soon see a fee increase. The Sitka Assembly voted 5 to 1 Tuesday night (7-22-14) to raise vehicle registration fees. Money raised through the tax would go towards maintaining the city’s roads.

This was the first reading for the ordinance; it will come before the assembly at least once more before it can become law.

The measure is one answer to a question the assembly has been wrestling with for the past several months: how is Sitka going to pay for its roads? The city estimates it will need about $2.7-million every year for the next 25 years to repair and maintain Sitka’s road system, and right now it isn’t clear where that money will come from. This year’s budget included $1.3-million for roads. That’s significantly more than in the past, but still less than half what the city says it needs.

City staff have argued that what Sitka needs a dedicated source of revenue to keep its roads from deteriorating – a pot of money that’s isn’t dependent on the shifting moods of successive assemblies juggling a thousand competing priorities in the face of perpetually tight budgets.

Enter the motor vehicle registration tax. The proposal passed Tuesday night would increase the fee for each personal car to $300, paid every two years, with larger increases for commercial vehicles. The increase would go into effect in January 2016, and the city estimates it would raise about $675,000 a year for road maintenance — or about a quarter of the total amount the city would need each year.

The measure was sponsored by assembly members Mike Reif, Matt Hunter and Phyllis Hackett. Reif argued that a vehicle tax is simply the fairest way to fund road maintenance.

“I see it as a user fee,” he said. “You don’t drive, you don’t pay. if you only have one car, you pay less than a person that has two vehicles. And so it has a sense of fairness. It has a sense of progressiveness, not a regressive tax, in that usually people with more means have more vehicles than people with less means, and I like that aspect.”

But early in the discussion, member Ben Miyasato spoke up, sounding plainly conflicted.

“I am not totally against the idea of this vehicle tax,” Miyasato said. “What I’m against right now is the timing: we do have a lot of increases.”

That includes recent utility rate increases for electricity, water, and wastewater.

“I keep hearing the same thing: ‘Everything’s going up.'” Miyasato said. “I know it doesn’t sound like much, but every dollar counts for some of the people out there. When you’re talking about the reason why we’re raising this, for the road upkeep, I’m not against that. I’m just against the timing of it.”

Miyasato said he would like more time to consider the issue. Would the assembly postpone the discussion until the following meeting?

They would not. Reif and Hackett argued that the issue had already been postponed too long.

“This is a really difficult conversation to have,” Hackett said.  “We’ve had it every year since I’ve been on the assembly. We have it and have it and have it, and we really have not taken any good steps toward a solution.”

“We haven’t taken a first step,” Reif said. “We have continued to kick this can down this pothole-filled road…and we just kick the can down the road.”

In the end, Miyasato reluctantly voted yes, along with Reif, Hackett, Hunter and Mayor Mim McConnell, who participated via telephone. Assembly member Pete Esquiro was absent.

Aaron Swanson was the lone “no” vote. He said he prefers other options for raising revenue.

“I keep hearing about, every single time we have a problem, we increase the rates. Which is basically what we have to do, but I do not believe that this is the answer for fixing the roads,” he said. “I would be much more happy raising or eliminating the sales tax cap.”

Sitka’s sales tax currently applies only to the first $1500 of any purchase.

Meanwhile, Phyllis Hackett said the answer is more “both/and,” than “either/or.”

“We talk about raising sale sales tax potentially to pay for this – that’s gonna happen, too!” she said. “That’s gonna have to happen, too. This is just the beginning.”

The vehicle registration tax will come before the assembly again at its next meeting, on August 12th. The measure must pass a second time before it becomes law.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the ordinance will come before the Sitka Assembly again on August 5th. The meeting will be August 12th.

You can find more coverage of the Sitka Assembly here.