Rates are going up in Sitka’s harbors.
The Assembly voted Tuesday night (2-10-15) to increase moorage rates for most vessels, for the third year in a row. The annual step-ups are expected to continue indefinitely, as the city tries to bring in enough money to pay for a wave of harbor maintenance and replacement in the coming decades.
Rates for both transient and permanent slip holders will go up by 6.68%. The increase is effective immediately for transient users. For resident vessels, it will go into effect on April 15.
The increase means it will cost $2.99 per foot per month to keep a boat permanently moored in Sitka’s harbors. For a 40-foot boat, that’s just under $120 ($119.60) a month. It adds up to about $1,435 a year — or about $91 dollars more than last year.
But Deputy Mayor Matt Hunter reminded the Assembly that it’s about more than just the one year.
“For one year it doesn’t sound so bad, but they’re looking at this for the next twenty years, basically, to get to the point where we can actually replace the infrastructure that we currently have,” he said.
The increases are part of the city’s master plan for the harbor system, which lays out the schedule for when Sitka will have to maintain and replace all of its harbor infrastructure. Much of that infrastructure was originally built and maintained with state money, but nearly everyone expects the city will have to shoulder the replacement costs alone.
Kevin Knox, the chair of the Port and Harbors commission, said the increase “doesn’t come without a little heartburn.”
“It’s a big chunk to be increasing our rates, but we understand, too, that based on some previous years where there weren’t increases, we had some catching up to do,” Knox said.
Knox was the only member of the public to speak at Tuesday night’s meeting, but Hunter stressed that the decision was hammered out over the course of three months.
“There have been many, many meetings on this issue, and many hours of testimony, and discussions, and question and answer,” Hunter said. “Everyone has really put their brains and hearts and soul into this, and I think this is a fair and a good increase based on where we’re at financially in our harbor system.”
The resolution had some bright spots for harbor users. Moorage rates for vessels under 20 feet will drop by about 20%. Knox said the goal is to fill now-empty skiff stalls.
“Some of our skiff stalls, [in] some of the harbors, are actually below 80% capacity,” Knox said. “So we really want to see more of the skiffs come back.”
The Port and Harbors Commission also sought to provide some relief to transient users. These are generally vessels that come from out of town, and only use the harbor for a few days or weeks, and Hunter said that they’ve seen the largest rate hikes in recent years.
“So the Port and Harbors commission came up with this idea of offering a 25% credit for any vessels actively engaged in fishing,” he said. “So if you come up here with your yacht…you’re going to pay your rate. But if you come here to fish, and you bring fish to town, then you’re going to get this credit.”
That 25% credit will be available for any vessel actively loading or unloading fish while in town.
Assembly Member Michelle Putz asked if it’s possible to minimize rate increases by shifting responsibility for some projects away from the harbor fund.
Finance Director Jay Sweeney said, in a word, no.
“I want to be very, very clear on this point,” Sweeney said. “There are no silver bullets for the harbor fund. No amount of tweaking things — of avoiding maintenance on some aspect of the net shed or the bulkhead for example — is going to solve this problem…I did a quick check. From 2032 through 2037 we have $60-million in capital expenditures scheduled, for a huge number of harbor refurbishments and replacements, not the least of which is Eliason Harbor.”
Sweeney said the city understands that rate increases are tough, and will revisit the rates every year. If revenue exceeds expectations, he said, then future increases will be smaller than what’s forecast. But the city must get started now.
“If we avoid rate increases now, and don’t increase the rates steadily over the years, we are going to be faced in that period of time with either a massive rate increase or abandoning the harbor.” he said. “There will be no other choices.”
And with that warning ringing in their ears, the Assembly voted to approve the increases, 5-0.