The Sitka Assembly postponed a vote on a controversial vehicle tax last night (Tuesday, 9-9-14). The Assembly has been considering an increase in the motor vehicle registration fee to fund road maintenance. But assembly members decided to look into other options, first.

The vehicle tax was first proposed by assembly members Mike Reif, Phyllis Hackett and Matt Hunter as a way to fund Sitka’s roads. The city estimates it will need $2.7-million a year for the next 25 years to keep Sitka’s roads paved, and right now, it’s not clear where that money will come from.

At its meeting on August 26, the assembly passed a proposal that would charge non-commercial vehicle owners $125 every two years. Commercial vehicle owners would pay $450 every other year. Finance Director Jay Sweeney estimated that the fees would bring in about half a million dollars a year, or about 20-percent of what the city needs for road maintenance.

During public comment, Sitka resident Bruce Conine said the proposed rates were too high. Conine has run Sitka Wildlife Tours for thirteen years.

“I’ve downsized my house, I’ve done everything I can possibly do to become efficient,” Conine said. “But I don’t have anywhere else to go…so until we see tourism go back up the other way, I’m in a real, between a rock and a hard spot.”

Conine has three passenger vans that he uses for tours. Since those are commercial vehicles, he would pay $675 a year under the proposed plan. Conine said that the vehicles are only on the road five months a year, during tourist season. And in recent years he’s had trouble keeping them full.

“Now, if our tourist industry turned around and we had five, six ships a week, then that would change, and I’d be gladly willing to help,” Conine said. “But there’s no more money to help now.”

Conine was one of four members of the public who spoke on the vehicle tax. Three spoke against it, and one in favor.

The proposal before the assembly had another complication: it called for placing a tax measure on the ballot in October 2015, as an alternative to the vehicle tax. The ballot measure would raise revenue equal to the vehicle tax, so voters could choose. If Sitkans liked the alternate tax better, they could approve the ballot measure, and the vehicle tax wouldn’t go into effect. But if they rejected the ballot measure, the vehicle tax would take effect in January 2016.

City Attorney Robin Koutchak was tasked with compiling a list of possible alternative taxes to include in that ballot measure. Her report is expected later this month.

And Mayor Mim McConnell said she’d like to see what Koutchak comes up with before moving ahead with the vehicle tax.

“Let’s get them all together, let’s look at the whole picture, and let’s do this right,” McConnell said.

But assembly member Mike Reif argued that postponing the vehicle tax was simply kicking the can down the road.

“$125 every two years, that’s $5 a month, 17 cents a day,” Reif said. “I can see better approaches, a fuel tax is one of them. But the question I ask myself [is], if not now, when? And the answer says, it should be now.”

Reif said that history shows that without some kind of ultimatum, the assembly won’t act.

“If we don’t have that will, I doubt if anything will happen, again, and again,” Reif said.

McConnell said she had faith the assembly would take action. “I feel a little more optimistic than that,”she said.

And in the end, a majority agreed. Members Aaron Swanson, Phyllis Hackett and Matt Hunter voted with the mayor to postpone the discussion. Reif voted against postponement, along with members Ben Miyasato and Pete Esquiro.

The assembly will return to the issue once it has received the report from the city attorney.

You can find more coverage of the Sitka Assembly here.