Juneau Assembly members are considering a plan to replace a week-old, $1.73-per-person cruise ship passenger fee with a modified version of the city's former tonnage fee to pay for port development projects.
After hearing objections from private dock owners and the cruise ship industry, the Assembly's port dues subcommittee Thursday asked city staff to prepare a tonnage-fee resolution that would be used for specific projects and exempt private dock users. It would replace a $1.73 passenger fee that went into effect May 15.
"The last thing I wanted to do was go back to the tonnage tax, but I'm going to forgo my pride and go back," Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch said. "It seems we still have some groundwork and talking to do with the North West CruiseShip Association."
Assembly members haven't identified what the new tonnage fee will be, although the decade-old fee ranged from 5 to 23 cents before it expired Jan. 1. As with the $1.73 charge, the new tonnage fee would be used to pay for part of the Marine Park-Steamship Wharf redesign, a comprehensive waterfront plan and a dock extension study, based on the subcommittee's direction. Koelsch suggested the fee expire in three years.
"We're not closing any doors. What we are doing is assuring that there is a legal, steady flow of revenue toward these projects," he said.
Assembly member Jeannie Johnson, who helped craft the $1.73 passenger fee with Mayor Sally Smith earlier this month, said she doesn't have a preference about whether the city charges cruise ships per passenger or per ton as long as a mechanism is in place to collect the money.
The North West CruiseShip Association, which represents ships visiting Southeast Alaska, has asked the city to tie whatever port charge it chooses to specific projects. The association last week asked the city to set up "an interim fee" for city dock users as its members work out a way to share costs.
The association also asked the city to delay bidding the Marine Park-Steamship Wharf redesign project and begin work on a comprehensive waterfront plan this year.
Tom Dow, vice president of public affairs for Princess Cruise Lines, said his company didn't want to put Marine Park-Steamship Wharf on hold as much as get more information about the project's cost and design. Princess is a NWCA member.
"There's still some uncertainty about this project and what all is involved in it. We have some preliminary estimates, but we don't have final costs," he said. "There's also the matter of drawing the line in terms of what constitutes wharf and dock improvements ... and what constitutes city park or public beautification. Once we have that, I think we could allocate those costs amongst ourselves and be creative in that process."
Representatives from the Downtown Business Association objected to delaying the Marine Park-Steamship Wharf project. Galligaskins co-owner Rod Swope said retail sales suffer when ships don't use Steamship Wharf, because people shop close to their ship.
"It's location, location, location," he said. "It's devastating when ships don't use the facility because it's an inferior dock. There are 34 days this summer when a ship isn't tied up at Steamship Wharf - a quarter of the summer. That's why we're having trouble."
Johnson said she doesn't want to delay the project either.
"The Assembly approved it and I would have a very big concern about slipping back on that if we wait a year," she said. "We made a promise to people that we would go forward on that."
Representatives from Princess, the private Franklin Dock, Alaska Sightseeing/Cruise West and Goldbelt's Seadrome dock also have objected to the $1.73 charge, calling it illegal.
Alaska Sightseeing Southeast Regional Manager Larry Johansen asked Assembly members to exempt private dock users. Alaska Sightseeing ships use the Seadrome dock, near Merchants Wharf.
"We have a contract with a private dock operator, and this private developer made the investment," he said. "We don't currently use city facilities, and if we did we'd expect to pay."
The Assembly subcommittee will meet again Wednesday for more work on the new tonnage-fee proposal. The city also charges a separate $5-per-person cruise ship passenger fee.
Joanna Markell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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