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City nixes request for lower port fees

Posted: Thursday, March 15, 2001

The Juneau Assembly Finance Committee has recommended keeping the current tonnage fee for commercial passenger ships that use city ports.

In doing so, the Finance Committee on Wednesday turned down an industry request for lower port dues, as the tonnage fee is called, and sparked a discussion about whether Juneau is friendly to business.

Assembly member Dale Anderson voted against the current 23-cent-a-ton fee.

"We're spending money, grabbing money, making financial decisions without firm figures," he said.

The port dues charge cruise ships and tour boats by the ton for each port visit. Small passenger vessels and those that travel only within 100 miles of the city are exempt. The dues, first collected in 1990, are intended to retire debt for port and

upland improvements and pay for major maintenance.

The Docks and Harbors Board recommended keeping the fee at 23 cents a ton for the 2001 visitor season, the same rate as in the past three years, said Port Director Joe Graham. It would generate an expected $1.9 million, enough to continue to retire previous debt for rehabilitating wharves and pay for several new projects.

Graham said the harbors board wants to dredge oil-contaminated soil near Steamship Wharf, build a lightering float north of the subport, which would reduce bus congestion near Marine Park, and straighten the dock face at the Steamship-Cold Storage Wharf to allow longer and deeper-draft ships to berth there.

The harbor also has about $500,000 from past port fees as a cushion for unexpected major maintenance work, Graham said.

But the Port Advisory Committee, composed of six cruise ship and shore excursion industry members and one public member, asked for a fee of 13 cents a ton. Committee chairman Don Habeger said that would be enough to retire current debt and pay for a few projects such as the dredging.

The city-related cost of tying up an average cruise ship in Juneau has risen from $4,000 in 1990 to $20,000 last summer, Habeger said. He said the industry objects to the various pots of city money that seem to grow and don't come back to companies that dock in Juneau.

"We don't want you to create huge cushions and use them for things that don't directly benefit the industry," Habeger told the Finance Committee.

The only real spike in costs has been from the $5-a-head passenger fee, which started in 2000, said Assembly member John MacKinnon. He said there's 23 cents a ton in the cruise ship passengers' ticket price.

Anderson said the Finance Committee should wait for a study, due in May, of all the port fees. He also said Juneau has acquired a reputation for "putting the squeeze on businesses and enterprises that come into town, and that is a great concern to me."

Assembly member Don Etheridge said the 23 cent fee isn't an increase and it's needed to maintain the waterfront. Making facilities safe and usable is business-friendly, he said.

Assembly member Marc Wheeler said voters, in approving a passenger fee, were saying the cruise ship industry wasn't paying enough.

"To maintain the status quo (fee) is within the will of the majority of the voters," he said.

The Finance Committee will create a subcommittee to look at whether to continue the tonnage fee, which is due to expire Jan. 1, 2002.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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