My Turn: Juneau needs to include public in harbor decisions

Posted: Wednesday, January 12, 2005

There's been a lot of news recently about changes to the Juneau harbors. If you do some digging on the harbors' Web site, you can find a "Long-Term Financial Plan" that lays out significant fee increases over the next five years for all the small-boat harbors. You need to search hard to piece together all the things harbor officials seem to be planning, but even after you've read everything, the one thing you can't find is where the boating community in Juneau was asked for their input. Juneau isn't the only community struggling to figure out how to upgrade and manage aging harbor infrastructure, but apparently the Juneau Docks and Harbors Board doesn't think the Juneau boating community should have any input in how to get that done.

For comparison, I visited the Ketchikan harbors Web page recently and found something very interesting. It's called the City of Ketchikan Ports and Harbors Development Plan. Wow. A whole plan online and available for stakeholders to review. In addition, Ketchikan actually held meetings with 30 stakeholder groups before developing this plan. These were focused meetings to get input from stakeholders on what needs to be improved, and how it should be improved. If that wasn't enough, Ketchikan also sent surveys to all existing harbor users to get their input.

What a contrast with Juneau, where proposed changes are buried on the harbors Web site or discreetly piled off to one side at the harbor offices. When was the last time you were invited to a stakeholder meeting on harbor issues in Juneau? Not a public hearing on a plan that has already been developed, or an opportunity to stand up and say something at a Docks and Harbors Board meeting, but a stakeholder meeting to ask for your input before a plan was developed? Maybe when the harbor officials asked property owners for bond money for harbor improvements? Or when they asked for a sales tax increase? Nope. In Juneau, it seems the "government knows best." The government comes up with the plans and all we get to do is comment on them.

There's another interesting thing about Ketchikan's plan. Ketchikan also did a harbor needs assessment and a supply-and-demand analysis. They looked at which harbor use sectors were growing, which were declining, and what size vessels were in each one, and used that information to estimate their future facility needs. They found, for example, that while commercial and fishing vessel numbers were expected to decline, charter and recreational vessel numbers were expected to increase. They also projected a surplus of stalls in the 17- to 20-foot range and a demand for stalls in the 41- to 60-foot range.

Who knows if Juneau's projections would come out the same? I'd wager the Docks and Harbors Board doesn't. Among the proposed rate increases and big development plans for Auke Bay, there's no hard data on what Juneau's future needs might be and how the proposed rate increases and plans will meet those needs. In fact, the "Financial Plan" doesn't even show that the proposed increases over the next five years will bring in enough money to cover costs.

Would you run a business like this? Or let me put it this way: Would you let someone run a business with your money like this? Because that is what we are doing. It's mostly Juneau residents that are going to be paying these higher harbor fees, transient or permanent. It's Juneau property owners who are footing the bill for the bonds the Docks and Harbors Board wants for harbor improvements and those big development plans for Auke Bay. We're paying the sales tax.

Maybe it's time to ask that this whole process of overhauling the harbor system be stopped until we, the stakeholders, have been brought into the process. Maybe it's time to ask the Docks and Harbors Board for a real financial plan that covers all the small-boat harbors before they start taking Band-Aid measures to increase revenues. How long would it take to send a letter or an e-mail letting the Docks and Harbors Board and the Assembly know your thoughts? Doesn't Juneau deserve to be involved in this process the way the folks in Ketchikan have been?

• Katharine Miller is a Juneau resident and a boat owner.

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