Ketchikan voters weigh head tax issue

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

KETCHIKAN - When Ketchikan residents go to the polls next week, they'll see a familiar Southeast Alaska issue on the ballot.

Voters will decide Tuesday whether to charge cruise ship passengers $5 to visit Alaska's First City. The ballot initiative is modeled after a similar measure now in place in Juneau, with a few twists.

According to the proposal, up to half of the proceeds may be used for vocational education in visitor-related fields. Initiative sponsors also suggest that the money be earmarked for roads, trails and emergency services.

Ralph Mirksy, the School-to-Work coordinator at Ketchikan High School, and John Cote, a counselor at the school and former Borough Assembly member, sponsored the initiative. Both have said they are not representing the school district in their efforts. And both are part of a group called Concerned Citizens for Responsible Tourism.

The group has linked high school dropouts to a need for improved vocational programs in town. Cote told Ketchikan's Chamber of Commerce last week that the passenger fee won't completely resolve Ketchikan's student dropout rate, but it is part of the answer.

"We believe one the greatest values from this campaign is that it has shined a spotlight on the education system in our community," he said.

According to Ketchikan Visitors Bureau Executive Director Patti Mackey, no one disputes the need for better education programs. But she said a head tax isn't the way to provide such services.

"If you look around our community, our educational program is in desperate need of a fix. If that wasn't the case, we wouldn't be looking at the possible recall of five school board members," she said. "But I don't think throwing cash at it is going to be the answer to that problem."

Mackey is a member of the anti-head tax group Team Ketchikan. She said the cruise industry injects money into the town's economy, and she warned that Ketchikan needs to keep its eye on the competition.

"I do feel that tourism is paying its fair share," she said.

Part of the debate in Ketchikan has centered on whether cruise ships might replace a stop in Ketchikan with a visit to Prince Rupert.

Ketchikan has geographic advantages, John Cote said.

"They didn't leave Juneau," he said. "We are the first port in and the last port out. ... The cruise ship companies are not going to pass us by."

In addition, improvements to Ketchikan's visitor infrastructure will make the community more attractive to visitors, he said.

Team Ketchikan has posted yellow signs in shop windows throughout town which read "Tourism Pays: Vote No Tax." Initiative sponsors responded with "Team Reality" baseball caps, which they donned at a forum earlier this month.

According to Team Ketchikan member and Taquan Air President Brien Salazar, a $5 tax risks sales tax revenue. He said people ignore the trickle-down effects of tourism.

"There's been a downturn in the logging industry and a downturn in the fishing industry. The only thing we have is tourism," he said.

According to the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau, 572,464 cruise ship passengers visited Ketchikan in 2000. This summer, the visitors bureau is expecting about 650,000 cruise ship passengers.

Based on fees collected in Juneau last year, the sponsors of Ketchikan's initiative expect the borough would collect about $3 million this year. If approved, the tax would take effect immediately. The initiative does not limit the size of ships to which the fee would apply.

The city of Ketchikan last month commissioned a legal opinion on the initiative from an Anchorage law firm. According to the report, the proposal would likely require the borough to exercise a tax power it doesn't have. On the other hand, it concludes that the initiative does not improperly dedicate or appropriate revenues.

City Council and Team Ketchikan member Mike Harpold has questioned whether the passenger fee is legal.

"If we don't need this money, why are we asking for it? If we do need it, let's demonstrate it and we can look at increasing our port fees," he said.

Initiative sponsors filed their petition with Ketchikan's borough government, not the city. Cote said the initiative doesn't stop the borough from assessing a fee for city services, then turning the money over to the city.

"It's legal in Juneau, it hasn't been challenged in court. It's legal in Yakutat, it's legal in Rhode Island. It's legal in Ketchikan," he said.

The state's Local Boundary Commission currently is considering a proposal to consolidate Ketchikan's city and borough governments.

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday's election, the issue won't go away, said Marcel LaPerriere, treasurer of Concerned Citizens for Responsible Tourism.

"I really don't want to have to go through this again. But I'm willing to do it and I think the other sponsors are as well. It took two tries in Juneau," LaPerriere said. "I'm quite optimistic that this is going to go through. But if it doesn't, we're going to be right back out there with petitions in hand."

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