Haines voters OK 4 percent tourism tax

Posted: Wednesday, April 26, 2000

The tourism-driven economy of Haines entered a new era Tuesday with confirmation that borough voters approved new 4 percent taxes on tours and lodging.

The Haines Borough Assembly, in canvassing the April 18 election, reversed the initial outcome of the vote on the tour tax. That tax, which trailed by a razor-thin 410-409 after the election, ultimately passed 465-453 after absentee and questioned ballots were examined Tuesday, said borough clerk Jacki Lawson.

Meanwhile, the margin widened for the yes vote on the bed tax, which was approved 475-440, after an initial count of 416-401 in favor.

``It shows that the community is still divided in half,'' said Borough Mayor Jerry Lapp. ``We'll work it out from here. We have to. It's a done deal.''

The vote was attributed variously to a revenue shortfall in the borough and to the desire to send a message about industrial-scale tourism.

Debra Schnabel, a resort owner and former borough assemblywoman, noted the $50 state head tax on cruise passengers recently proposed by state Senate President Drue Pearce and an initiative in Miami to pass a head tax.

``There is a call for the cruise industry as a whole to come to the table in communities all over the United States,'' said Schnabel, who voted for the tour tax. ``They've made a lot of decisions in isolation. ... What I'm talking about is the need for equals to meet.''

But tour operator Bart Henderson said that while cruise companies might feel compelled to continue doing substantial business in Juneau, despite last fall's voter-approved head tax here, Haines is a much more marginal destination that could easily be dropped from itineraries.

Although cruise lines won't be taxed directly, they might make less in commissions for on-board sales when local tour operators add the 4 percent tax to their prices. With cruise line profits already slim in Haines, that could be an incentive to stay longer in Skagway and skip the Port Chilkoot dock, Henderson said.

``It's a waiting game now,'' he said. ``We have to live with whatever reaction we get out of the cruise lines at this point. ... I think we've further damaged our reputation.''

The April 18 election was a re-run from last fall, when the taxes were approved in a slightly different form only to be set aside on a technicality at the advice of borough attorneys. In the October election, voters also approved an advisory measure favoring a limit on cruise ship traffic to the year 2000 level.

Lapp said he recently wrote a conciliatory letter to the cruise lines, in order to counter a perception that Haines wasn't welcoming them. ``I was basically telling them not everybody is against you.''

In Ketchikan, Kris Geldaker, vice president of Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska, said the new taxes will be taken into account when cruise companies decide their schedules.

``I guess the interpretation may be that the community of Haines may not be as receptive to the cruise ships as they were 10 years ago, when they were asking for them,'' Geldaker said. ``It's disheartening. On the positive side, there's some lead time.''

The tour tax becomes effective Jan. 1, 2001.

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