City Attorney John Hartle told members of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly gathered for a Committee of the Whole work session Monday evening that a proposed ordinance amending CBJ code on cruise ship passenger fees would help ensure compliance with federal law.
Hartle said most of the proposed changes in the ordinance, which is set for public hearing Aug. 13, are “housekeeping” adjustments to better match the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which became federal law after Juneau voters approved the current fee of $5 per passenger in 1999. But the “most substantive change” in the ordinance, he said, would reduce the exemption from the fees for smaller ships to comply with equal protection standards.
Under current code, ships with overnight accommodations for 40 or fewer passengers are exempt from the per-passenger fee. The ordinance would change that exemption to apply only to ships with accommodations for 20 or fewer passengers.
Assembly member Randy Wanamaker questioned the need for the change.
“It is the one substantive change, and I’m just not sure that it’s really necessary on the part of the city,” Wanamaker said. “That’s the one thing I don’t have a feel for, and I just have to say that.”
“My recommendation is to have that just as low as you can stand it,” Hartle said of the number. He said the aim is “trying to avoid an equal protection argument that ‘you only put a fee on the big players, and you exempt your friends, the little guys.’ I don’t know if any of that’s true at all, but the lower we can have this number, the safer we are against that argument.”
Port Director Carl Uchytil said he believes the change would impact just “three or four” cruise ships while leaving perhaps one beneath the new number.
Wanamaker also expressed concerns about the administrative cost of assessing the fees on the ships with between 21 and 40 passenger accommodations.
“I wonder about the cost of us collecting that extra, the funds from the vessels down to 20 (passengers) — whether it’s more of an administrative burden than it’s worth, and a disincentive for smaller vessels to come to the community,” said Wanamaker. “It might not be worth the change.”
Uchytil said he is confident that Teena Scovill, Docks and Harbors’ administrative assistant, can handle the extra work. But he added that with few ships affected and few passengers aboard them, the change will not generate “a great deal of money.”
Mayor Bruce Botelho, who requested the review of code, said he thinks the proposed change is fair and would serve to help shield the city from legal action under the equal protection argument.
“I think it’s a reasonable attempt to … indicate that we have not attempted to single out larger cruise ships,” Botelho said. “I would expect that all the companies will easily comply once they understand what the terms are.”
After the meeting, Wanamaker said that Hartle and Uchytil’s explanations had assuaged his concerns.
“It isn’t much money, but it’s cost-effective to collect it, and given that it brings us closer to complying with equal protection for everyone, I understand that,” said Wanamaker. “As long as we’re not creating economic disincentives for our community, I’m going to accept the change.”
On a motion by Assembly Member Karen Crane, the committee forwarded the discussion to the full Assembly for its regular meeting Aug. 13.
• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at email@example.com.