Plastic bags take between 500 and 1000 years to break down. They never fully biodegrade. A group called “Bags for Change” is leading a local effort to impose a plastic bag fee. (Renusha Indralingam/KCAW photo)

Sitka has taken the first step towards passing policy to reduce plastics in the environment, joining the ranks of other communities around the state. The ordinance – passed by a 4-2 vote on first reading by the Sitka Assembly Tuesday night (09-11-18) – would require vendors to charge customers 15 cents for every plastic bag and 10 cents for every paper bag.

Though the Assembly extended their meeting until 11:15 p.m., but did not complete their agenda. Those include items I through M and Item O. They’ll take up those items on September 25th, though a special meeting may be called if necessary.

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The money would go into Sitka’s general fund. The hope is for less plastics in the environment. The public show of support for a plastic bag fee was strong Tuesday night. Fifteen citizens spoke in favor, including Jennifer Carter. “If Anchorage can do this, we can do this. If Hawaii, the entire state of Hawaii can do this, we can do this,” said Carter.

Doug Osborne, Chair of Sitka’s Health Commission, also endorsed the ordinance. “Sitka grocers alone distribute $2 million plastic bags annually,” he informed the Sitka Assembly.

Plastic pollution on land and sea is a global problem. Advocates for the law said the fee would be an economic nudge to shoppers to bring a reusable bag when they shop.

Michelle Putz leads the citizens group Bags for Change. In the past two years, they’ve advocated for a plastic bag fee and distributed reusable bags across town to set the wheels in motion. “I’d like to think of this as Sitka’s plastic solution pollution revolution. We’re starting that here now,” Putz told KCAW.

Bags for Change polled 250+ citizens at Sitka’s three grocery store. Their survey found that 70% of shoppers favored a ban or a fee. A Sitka Chatters poll with 420 online participants saw 53% in favor. It was a mountain of data and advocacy, which persuaded the majority of Assembly members.

Those in dissent disputed the ordinance for economic reasons.

Assembly member Aaron Bean saw the fee as yet another tax on citizens. “I see a fee as not a very good solution to a very serious problem. If the idea is to reduce plastic bags in the community then we need to ban them,” Bean said.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz said he could not support the ordinance as written because it created more accounting work for business owners. Since retailers are upholding the fee, he argued, they should be compensated.

“I think that there is a cost to the businesses and we need to consider that as well. The other half of the money I think should go to the solid waste fund,” Eisenbeisz said, since the solid waste fund pays for the disposal of plastic bags.

Eisenbeisz then made a motion to re-write the ordinance, saying the collected revenue should be split between retailers and the solid waste fund. It failed for lack of a second. Eisenbeisz owns a local business, but Mayor Matthew Hunter ruled it was not a conflict of interest because he is a part of a class of small business owners and not speaking for himself.

The plastic bag ordinance passed as written by a vote of 4 to 2, with Eisenbeisz and Bean voting against. Assembly member Bob Potrzuski was not on the phone at the time to partake in the vote.

In other business, the Assembly raised harbor rates by 6% as planned in their FY18 budget.

They also authorized, on first reading, issuing revenue bonds to pay back state loans for future capital projects. The vote was close, 4-3 on both projects: Phase 1 of reconstructing Crescent Harbor (Floats 1 through 4 and the head walk) and renovations to Sitka’s airport terminal building.

The majority, which included Mayor Matthew Hunter, Kevin Knox, Bob Potrzuski, and Ben Miyasato, supported the city’s bounding strategy. Those in dissent, which included Aaron Bean, Eisenbeisz, and Richard Wein, did not. Here’s an exchange between Eisenbeisz and Hunter, demonstrating their differences.

Eisenbeisz: The Harbormaster and his staff have come forward to me and said that the harbor is failing. It is due for replacement. I understand that. I fully do. But another large debt load? Another rate covenant? I don’t know. It’s a hard sell for me.

Hunter: Steven, I get it. I agree. The only reason I think this is something we should do right now and should’t put off is because of that grant fund that’s available now, and that we may never have another opportunity to get.

Hunter is referring to a $5 million state grant for the Crescent Harbor project. The bond ordinances will come up against for second and final reading on September 25th.

The Assembly also heard a report from two locals – Scott McArthur and Andrew Friske – to propose a mitigation structure on South Kramer Avenue (Kramer Ave Mitigation Powerpoint). A housing development in that area was destroyed in a landslide in 2015. The Assembly directed City Administrator Keith Brady to continue discussion with McArthur and Friske about that concept under the condition the city was held harmless.