When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (12-27-22), it approved several updates to rules concerning commercial vendor and vehicle permitting at Harrigan Centennial Hall. Some, like additional incentives for electric vehicles, passed smoothly, while others, like increasing the permit rate for large buses, will need more votes in order to pass on second reading.

In early December, the assembly voted to change the process for obtaining commercial permits at the city building that serves as the primary pickup and drop off point for cruise ship passengers in the summer months. The new rules required businesses to bid for vendor and outfitter spots outside the building, instead of paying a flat fee, and established annual permit rates for commercial vehicles, like taxis and buses.

Despite having already adopted new code, the assembly believed there was still work to be done, and on Tuesday it approved several modifications to the rules. In response to requests from tour operators, it voted to increase the permit duration for vendors and outfitters from one year to three years, and to change the bidding process from sealed to an “outcry” auction on a 5-1 vote with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz opposed.

It also unanimously voted to fully eliminate the permit fee for electric vehicles. But there was considerable debate over the fourth amendment, which would increase the permit fee for large vehicles with 30 or more passengers from $1000 to $2000. 

Several members of the public said they agreed that the fees should be increased, but asked the assembly to slowly increase the amount over time. Michelle Barker owns Sitka Bike and Hike. 

“These do need to be increased. You guys are right. But we just were shut down for two years, and we’re so in debt. And we’re just really working to get all that COVID debt paid off. So consider a ramp up period, give us some time,” Barker said. “The way our companies work is our pricing is already set for 2023. We can’t change a thing until 2024. If we have these huge fees upfront this year, that’s going to hurt a lot of us.”

Trudy Pruitt owns Sitka Tours, one of a few companies that would be impacted by the large vehicle fee increase. She agreed with Barker that the fees should be increased, but the rates should “ramp up.”  

“We’ve had a couple of years that have been tough,” Pruitt said. “I would be feeling punished, if what it is that you’re asking, for me to have to…pay out at this point in time.”

Sponsor Thor Christianson said the thinking behind increasing the rate was two- fold. Large buses had the biggest impact on the community during last cruise season – on traffic, emissions, and city infrastructure. And increasing the fees for the larger vehicles would equalize the rate all vehicles pay per-passenger.

“Right now the smaller passenger vehicles are paying significantly more per passenger, about twice, depending on the size,” Christianson said. “I know, at least for me personally, I feel that a large reason why we have to charge the higher fees is because of the large vehicles.”

“In terms of the impact those those vehicles have on this facility, this is the cost that we think would be reasonable,” said Tim Pike who co-sponsored the ordinance with Christianson. “And some of those seats are filled multiple times a day. So, I mean, the cost per passenger is pretty minimal, even on these bigger buses. So yeah, I do understand the concern for going from zero to something, but the costs and impacts have changed significantly.”

But Mayor Eisenbeisz noted that the city used to pay the bus companies to bring passengers from the cruise terminal to Harrigan Centennial Hall. Going from subsidizing those trips to increasing the rate the tour buses pay is a big change. And the policy wouldn’t just impact the larger tour operators. 

When we come at this, and we say that we can get more money, I would agree, I would think that Alaska Coach would pay $5,000 a bus. I think they’d pay $10,000 a bus to have a place to drop off,” Eisenbeisz said. “But we have to realize that same fee, that same level of impingement, is also going to go forward to a business like Sitka Tours,” he added. “Is that who we want to be? Is that what we want to be?”

Ultimately the assembly was split, with members Christianson, Pike and JJ Carlson voting in favor and Kevin Mosher, Chris Ystad, and Mayor Eisenbeisz opposed. Member Crystal Duncan was absent and excused. Since the ordinance didn’t receive 4 “no” votes, it will advance to a final reading, but at that point it will need a majority of assembly members to support it in order to pass. All four amendments will come before the assembly again at its next regular meeting on January 10. 

View the assembly’s meeting agenda, including the complete language for each amendment here