Local control comes at a price.
Cities that have taken over harbors from the state say owning the harbors allows them to manage them more effectively. But at the same time, many of these cities, including Juneau, have to raise moorage fees to prevent harbors from falling apart further.
"We don't have a choice," said Juneau Port Director John Stone. "If we don't raise the fees, we will have to close the harbors."
Stone expects the 250-percent fee increase over five years could force some local boaters out of the harbors and attract more boats from the Lower 48. Despite the increase, Juneau's rates are still cheaper than those of many states.
Since 1992, the state has turned over ownership of 58 harbors to the cities. Although the state gives each city some money for deferred maintenance, the cities have found the funding is far from enough.
Juneau received $7 million from the state but needs $25 million to rebuild Harris Harbor, refurbish Statter Harbor and replace the electrical system of Aurora Harbor. Kodiak received $7 million in 1999 but needs $17 million for reconstruction.
The state determines the amount of transfer fee based on a 1992 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers assessment report on all state-owned harbors. Because the turnover date might be years after the assessment, the fee factors in inflation. The city and the state have to agree upon the amount before the turnover.
"It's a leave-it-or-take-it deal," said Alan Sorum, president of the Alaska Association of Harbormasters and Port Administrators. "You either take the money and move on or move on without the money."
Whittier took over the harbors from the state in fall of 2004. Although the city had told the state that it needed $6.1 million to build its small boat harbor, it eventually took the $2.5 million the state offered.
"Our harbor was built in 1971 and expanded in 1981," said Whittier Harbormaster Mark Earnest. "The floats and pilings are beyond their useful life. We have been patching them."
For some communities, taking over the harbors is a must.
"About 95 percent of the city's economy revolves around fishing," said Kodiak Harbormaster Marty Owen. "We cannot just leave the harbors in disrepair." Kodiak raised moorage fees four times over five years.
Victor Winters, state harbor engineer, said the cities that complain simply suffer from "buyer's remorse." But he acknowledged that the state gives the cities only about 50 percent of the amount that is needed for deferred maintenance.
"Keeping the harbors in good condition is a joint responsibility with the local government," Winters said. "Many cities chose to keep their moorage rates artificially low to benefit the local populations, assuming state appropriations would be available to make up the difference. Since the appropriations did not keep up with this demand, harbor maintenance and replacement suffered."
Winters said the best approach in the long run is for communities to own their own harbors and set their moorage rates at a level appropriate to operate, maintain and rebuild harbors.
Harbormasters around the state agree with Winters but they urge the state to pitch in to smooth the transition.
"We don't expect a complete bailout but some help from the state," Stone said.
I-Chun Che can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.