Harbormasters from all over the state are asking legislators to help them keep the harbors afloat.
Since 1992, the state has been transferring ownership of all harbors to the cities. Although the state gave the cities some money for deferred maintenance, the cities found that the amount wasn't enough.
Juneau received $7 million when it took over the harbors from the state in 2003 but needed $25 million to repair all the harbors. Kodiak received $7 million but needs another $10 million to rebuild its harbors.
"Harbors are the lifeblood of many coastal communities," said Alan Sorum, president of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators. "The state only gave municipalities a quarter of or half amount of the money they need for deferred maintenance."
To bridge the gap, the association is proposing that cities and the state equally split the cost of restoring harbors. Sorum presented the proposal to the Legislature's ad hoc Fish Caucus on Thursday.
Caucus member Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, said waterfront access is important for economic development in coastal communities. He encouraged all the cities to list their maintenance needs so the Fish Caucus could put them in a package.
"We need to do it in an inclusive way," Stedman said. "You don't want to come back and ask for more money. It would be difficult to do piecemeal programs."
But Stedman also encourages cities to adjust rates.
"For many years, the cities didn't build in the operation and maintenance fees in their rate structures because the state was supposed to pay for these capital projects," Stedman said. "They now should rethink their management philosophy."
That is exactly what many cities have done or are planning to do.
Juneau's Docks and Harbors Board recently raised moorage fees by 250 percent over the next five years. Valdez is raising moorage fees by 5 percent. Kodiak is raising moorage fees four times over a five-year period.
The changes have caused many concerns among commercial fishermen.
"You will see fewer commercial fishing operations in Juneau," said Chris McDowell, chairman of Fishery Development Committee in Juneau. "Juneau has relatively poor structure to begin with. The fee increase is the last straw to push some commercial fishermen to change their base to other communities."
Marty Owen, harbormaster of Kodiak, said he doesn't think Kodiak's commercial fishermen will move away because of the city's rate increase but it does add financial burdens for commercial fishermen.
"About 95 percent of our economy is based on the fishing industry," Owen said. "The fishermen understand it costs a lot of money to operate a harbor. They will work as hard as they can. They want to keep the costs down. But they don't want to give up their harbors, either."
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.