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Assembly wants more info on passenger fee spending

Posted: April 11, 2012 - 11:08pm  |  Updated: April 12, 2012 - 5:43am

The city has grappled with how to spend funds it collects as Marine Passenger Fees for several years, with perhaps the biggest struggle coming between public and private entities.

The Assembly Finance Committee met on Wednesday and heard an update on the list of projects the revenues will fund — which is estimated at $4.6 million for Fiscal Year 2013, based on an expected 930,000 cruise ship passengers.

Arguments in past years have been whether private docks — or even other related industries — can legally receive the funds since they are collected by the city. The counter-argument and policy the city has gone with is yes, private docks also are entitled to upgrade their operations in relation to the cruise ships because passenger safety throughout the entire port is important — regardless of who owns where the passengers are coming through.

This year, the Assembly isn’t so much concerned with allocating some of those funds to private docks — the Franklin and AJ Docks — but struggles with the kinds of projects it decides to grant funds to.

Assembly Member Mary Becker said she agrees funds should be spent to improve passenger safety regardless of dock ownership, but she wasn’t sure allocating funds for a tourism information kiosk at a private dock was appropriate.

Becker said that kind of project is more beneficial to the cruise line, rather than the safety of the passengers and that’s where she’d draw the line.

Assembly Member Jesse Kiehl also questioned the process for determining when to fund projects for private entities. He questioned whether they should be spending those funds on dock repairs and retaining wall repairs for the private companies as those are more a matter of business and there are other entities who have never asked for those funds who also are along the port or serve cruise ship passengers.

“I wonder if before this comes back, get a little more on where we draw the line on investing these publicly collected dollars at privately owned docks?” Kiehl asked. “Whether they tie at city dock or private dock, that’s a safety element.”

Kiehl agreed Becker had a valid concern on whether tourism kiosks would be appropriate. He said it isn’t clear if those kiosks would have information from all available entities at those kiosks, or, if because they are private, that they would cater to one specific cruise line or another.

Assembly Member Ruth Danner said she heard the “heartburn” Kiehl has over the issue, and said that sentiment was the same last year. She also requested they be provided with some rationale for when or how the city determines it will fund private infrastructure.

Mayor Bruce Botelho spoke generally to the issue of public vs. private, and said that the view should be to look at the city port as a whole.

“To the extent that we have a concern of free flow of passengers, their safety and the water front — including the appearance of the waterfront,” he said. “We have to meet threshold tests whether they come from a private proposal or the city. The underlying issue is one the manager identified — we have a concern for passenger safety and free movement. Whether that safety occurs immediately at a private dock or on facilities we ourselves own, it’s all part of an integrated system.”

Botelho suggested they continue the conversation at a Committee of the Whole meeting. Assembly Member Johan Dybdahl said he would like to see an information sheet drafted on Marine Passenger Fees that talks about allocations and process. He said each year they have some of the same struggles in part because new Assembly members are elected each year.

The fees and projects are expected to be back on the Finance Committee agenda in May.

In other business, the committee received a presentation of the Juneau School District budget. Assembly Member Ruth Danner appealed to the district to find a way to keep the Juneau Alaska Music Matters violin program at Glacier Valley Elementary School. Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling clarified the program itself wasn’t specifically being targeted. There is an elementary specialist reduction at each school proposed for next year and each principal determines how those specialists are allocated. JAMM is in jeopardy because of those specialist reductions and how Glacier Valley is looking at allocating them. The district representatives also pointed out those specialists are in the add-back list, should extra funding come in.

The committee took no action on the school budget, as the Assembly is already slated to take action on it April 23.

The committee moved the Capital Improvement Project list to the same meeting. It contains $1 million in projects using general tax revenues for PRISM (Professional Records and Information Services Management) lease, information technology modernization, Bridget Cove trail safety improvements and off-highway vehicle park phase 1 dollars; $8.5 million in projects for street maintenance, engineering, transit, parks and recreation and Eaglecrest Ski Area, $6.5 million in 1 percent temporary sales tax revenues for school debt retirement, deferred building maintenance, airport terminal, Switzer land development and the West Juneau-Douglas connection; port development, city and state Marine Passenger Fees are slated for the cruise ship berths and the seawalk for nearly $8 million combined; $875,000 in sewer improvements, $320,000 in water service improvements.

There also are sections for unscheduled funding for projects. Bartlett Regional Hospital has $20 million of projects it’s seeking funding for — the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Unit is one. The Juneau International Airport has $54 million in projects identified including the snow removal equipment facility and runway safety area phase two.

The last part of the CIP list includes unscheduled funding-type projects throughout the city departments, that all mirror the list of what was sent to the Legislature for grant requests. That list totaled more than $21 million.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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