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Lines fight head tax in Yakutat

Cruise industry may go to court

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

While the first cruise ship of the season was entering Yakutat's Disenchantment Bay on Tuesday, the city's number-crunchers were figuring out how much to charge the vessel for the excursion.

Yakutat's city manager is moving forward with a $1.50 per passenger tax approved by its Assembly in January, despite efforts by the cruise industry to avoid it. Although cruise officials met with civic leaders in March and April to negotiate an alternative to the tax, the two sides never reached agreement, said City Manager Paul Wescott.

"The Assembly voted for that, so I've got an obligation to go ahead and not hang back," Wescott said. "I'll just put into motion the ordinance they passed and let the chips fall where they may."

However, the industry still hopes to defeat the tax at another meeting tentatively scheduled for June 6, said John Hansen of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents nine cruise lines operating in Alaska. Hansen called the tax "a terrible precedent," saying the two sides probably will go to court if they can't reach a compromise.

"I'm hoping we can resolve it before it gets to the issue of legal action, and I'm confident that we can," Hansen said. "I think we're pretty close to having a good solid agreement that addresses all the community concerns."

The tax is unprecedented because the ships do not dock in Yakutat. Civic leaders have defended it, saying ill passengers from vessels traveling through borough waters have taken a toll on city medical services.

The industry would rather reimburse Yakutat for expenses than pay the tax, said Hansen, noting such a precedent would make the industry vulnerable to similar

taxes from other communities the ships pass en route to destinations worldwide.

"When you look at the number of locations around the world that that kind of precedent could apply, it would be enormous," Hansen said. "It sets a terrible precedent in terms of having a tax that applies to ships that are passing by a location."

Wescott, the city manager, said it's possible the Assembly will rescind the tax after the June 6 meeting, but he speculated that civic leaders would view recent illegal wastewater discharges by two cruise ships "with a jaded eye."

In the meantime, Wescott has directed the city Finance Department to set up a system to collect the money. The first tax payment likely would come due at the end of July, said tax clerk Mark Sappington, who is gathering passenger manifests to estimate how much the city is owed.

Meanwhile, the cruise industry and Yakutat Natives in separate negotiations ended an April meeting still deadlocked on a key environmental issue. Tribal leaders are concerned the ships are hurting seal populations in Disenchantment Bay, home of the Hubbard Glacier, a popular tourist attraction. The bay is a prime birthing area for seals, a subsistence food for some residents who fear the ships are scaring the pups from the safety of the ice floes.

The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe wants the ships to stay roughly four miles away from the glacier during pupping season, which overlaps with the summer tourism season. The cruise industry has resisted the boundary, saying it puts ships too far away from the glacier.

"The cruise industry felt they couldn't respect that, they needed to get closer to the glacier," said tribal environmental planner Bert Adams Jr. "It pretty much ended with that."

The industry instead promised to stay a half-mile from the glacier and keep 500 yards from ice floes bearing seals, said Hansen. The ships also will avoid a seal-pupping area between the mainland and what's called Egg Island.

"What we've said is unless there is some emergency or safety reason to go to the east side of Egg Island, the normal passage would be to the west of Egg, the wider channel," said Hansen, adding the industry also will fund a study to measure the effect of cruise ships on seals.

Kathy Dye may be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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