The future of the marine services industry in Sitka could be decided by voters this fall. The Sitka Assembly Tuesday night (7-12-22) approved on first reading a ballot question asking residents to spend the proceeds from the recent sale of the community hospital property to build a new marine haulout at the city’s industrial park. The transfer would solve a major problem for vessel owners in Sitka, but it also raises questions about where best to spend millions in public funds.

Thor Christianson and co-sponsor Kevin Mosher brought the ballot proposition forward after months of back and forth. If approved by the voters, the city would take the over $8 million dollars from the sale of Sitka Community Hospital property this spring and put it toward building a marine haulout. Christianson said the idea was the best option to emerge from a working group tasked to solve Sitka’s lack of anywhere to haul and service larger vessels.

“First and foremost, I think it’ll actually work,” Christianson said. “I think we can safely say we have tried just about everything.” 

It’s been over two years since the privately-owned haulout that served Sitka at Halibut Point Marine announced it would be shutting its doors. Since then, the city has tried to secure grants to fund a haulout, it’s sought proposals from the private sector, and leased property to a grassroots group of local vessel owners and commercial fishermen with solid plans for a community boatyard, but insufficient capital. So far, a haulout hasn’t materialized, and the fleet has been without a place to work on boats since this spring. 

“I was one of the last people to get hauled out at McGraw’s this spring, March 18. And I had nine different crew members come out and work on my boat for 25 bucks an hour, over the course of two days. It’s impossible for me to line up that kind of help in other communities that are familiar with my boat who work on my boat,” said local fisherman, Eric Jordan.

“I just want to press on you the urgency and importance to this fishing community,” he added.

Jordan was one of several Sitkans who urged the assembly to take the ballot prop to the voters. 

Sponsor Kevin Mosher said that at the end of the day, if the city wanted a haulout, it was going to have to pay for it. 

“The fishing fleet, the Marine fleet, affects every single person in this town,” Mosher said. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, I don’t have a fishing boat, it doesn’t affect me.’ It affects you very much, from sales tax to payroll, to people being on payroll, and then that money just circulates throughout the town. Having a haulout is absolutely crucial to this community.” 

Under the city’s charter, money from the sale of municipal property is deposited in the Sitka Permanent Fund, where only a vote of the public can withdraw it. That’s where the $8.1 million from the sale of Sitka Community Hospital landed. During public comment, former assembly member Richard Wein warned against using money from the permanent fund, and said dipping into Sitkans dividends from the state’s permanent fund might be a better way to go. 

“I think that this really needs to be considered,” Wein said. “Have a community effort. Everyone give a portion of their PFDs, we got the money, we got the U-haul, and we maintain the PFD.”

Several assembly members shared concerns about how taking $8 million would impact the health of the city’s permanent fund (which is meant to support Sitka’s operating budget) to the tune of about $340,000 a year. Member Kevin Knox said while he believed a haulout is essential, he wasn’t sure that paying for it with money from the permanent fund was the best solution. He proposed an amendment to the ballot proposition that would have required the assembly to pay back the annual losses each year. But he withdrew it after the city attorney raised questions about whether the measure was unconstitutional. Still, Knox said he couldn’t vote for the measure, at least on first reading. 

“I need more information. I need to figure out a little bit more about how this this works for our community as a whole,” Knox said. “And… if there’s some way to come back and and bring the permanent fund back to whole in some way.” 

“I struggle with using public money to support private industry,” said assembly member Rebecca Himschoot. “On the other hand, I can see some really good reasons why we need to do this. So I’m 100% for putting it on the ballot and letting the community decide.] It’s their assets. It’s the community’s permanent fund. And we need this haulout and we haven’t solved it any other way.”

The Sitka assembly passed the measure 6-1 on first reading with Knox opposed. If it passes on second reading, the question will go on the municipal ballot and voters will decide the issue in the October election.

The day prior to assembly deliberation of the proposed ballot question, the unelected board of the Gary Paxton Industrial Park also discussed the issue – raising many of the same questions – and ultimately voted unanimously to support putting the question to voters.