Sitka voters approved spending up to $8 million in public funds to build a new marine haulout and boat yard — by a staggering margin: 80 percent to 20 percent. “Now,” said Linda Behnken with the grassroots Sitka Community Boatyard, “it’s a matter of designing the best boatyard we can for our fleet and our community.” (GPIP image)

The biggest winners in Tuesday’s election in Sitka weren’t candidates, but ballot propositions: For a new tax on marijuana to support school activities, and – by an overwhelming margin –  for withdrawing $8 million from the city’s permanent fund to build a marine haulout and boatyard.

The effort to fund and build a new marine haulout in Sitka has been underway for three years, but no plan has gained any traction – until now.

“And it finally just became clear that the only way to get this done is for the city to have skin in the game,” said Linda Behnken, director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association and a member of the Sitka Community Boatyard, a grassroots organization that submitted a proposal for construction of the project, and raised significant cash to build it,  but was waylaid by the pandemic and the subsequent cost increases. The organization’s interest helped convince a group within City Hall to develop Prop 2, which asked voters to take up to $8 million from the recent sale of the Sitka Community Hospital building, and apply it toward the construction of a public marine haulout and boatyard, to replace a private facility that closed earlier this year.

Assembly member Thor Christianson was among those who helped craft the proposition. He says that just about everyone in Sitka realizes that the town needs a haulout. The solution proved to be finding a way to pay for one without imposing a new burden on the electorate. The plan worked.

“By using the money from the hospital sale we do not have to add any more taxes or fees to the average Sitkan,” said Christianson, in an email to KCAW. “I think that is why it did so well.  It was a chance to take advantage of an unusual situation to get it (the haulout and boat yard) built with a minimum of pain.  Also a lot of good people put a lot of work into making sure the word got out and that people knew what was at stake.”

Christianson is proud of the work that he and others put into the proposition, but he’s realistic, adding that “We have a lot of work to go, but now we have a start.”

Voters passed the proposition by a staggering margin, with 80-percent in favor: 1,225 yes, to 309 no. Linda Behnken is pleased that the ballot passed “so convincingly.” Because there have been so many attempts to develop a project with private capital, a lot of the preliminary engineering has already been done at Sitka’s Gary Paxton Industrial Park. Now, Behnken says, it’s a matter of “designing the best boatyard we can for our fleet and our community.” She believes the park’s board is poised to move ahead.

“My understanding is they’re going to be moving pretty quickly and working towards getting the environmental permitting that needs to be done and, and getting rolling on that,” Behnken said.

The other ballot question to pass – although by not as large a margin – was Prop 1, which asked voters to replace the regular 6-percent sales tax on marijuana products with an 8-percent tax dedicated to support extracurricular activities in Sitka’s schools.

Voters approved of the measure 57 to 43 percent (862 yes, 659 no).

Outgoing assembly member Kevin Knox is one of the ballot proposition’s sponsors. He sees the vote as a win that’s been in the making since the state legalized cannabis in 2015.

“The marijuana Advisory Committee (in 2015) talked about this quite extensively,” said Knox. “It’s been debated and discussed in the community for quite some time. We’ve had a couple of different assembly discussions about increasing the tax and changing the way we structure tax around marijuana products. And this, I guess, is the culmination of that here.”

The tax is projected to eventually raise up to $300,000. Knox says it will now be up to the school board to determine how to apply it. 

“To enhance activities and to be able to provide additional reach for kids and families that can’t necessarily afford participating in activities at all, or multiple activities,” he said, “and just to bring some equity to everybody that wants to participate.”

860 absentee and early ballots have yet to be counted in this year’s municipal election in Sitka, but it’s unlikely that the results would flip the large approval margins voters gave Props 1 and 2 on election day.