Sales taxes won't help pay for sculpture

Attempt to jump-start bronze whale with marine passenger fees also lacks support

Posted: Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Sales taxes won't help pay for a life-sized bronze whale sculpture that a group of citizens hope to place downtown, the Juneau Assembly decided Monday.

An attempt to use marine passenger fees instead of funds from the sales tax reserve also lacked support, failing under a tie vote.

Monday's vote reverses an August decision to give $500,000 in sales tax reserves to a group of private citizens called the Whale Committee to start the $2.5 million project.

Last month's decision sparked public outcry from people who said the expenditure was an inappropriate use of sales tax money. It prompted Assembly member Sara Chambers to propose a tax exemption on food because, "clearly we have more money than we know what to do with."

Whether it's sales taxes or marine passenger fees, the community would lose confidence in the elected board if it approved funding for the whale, Assembly member Randy Wanamaker said.

"And we would deserve to lose it," he added.

The board voted unanimously to defeat funding the project with sales taxes.

During discussion about whether cruise ship passenger fees could be used instead, City Attorney John Hartle said they could pay for part of the estimated $1.3 million in site preparation work, but not for the sculpture itself.

The committee said in August that it would use part of the city seed money to start casting the bronze sculpture, which is being designed by artist Skip Wallen, and also to help in fundraising efforts.

The city collects a $5 per-passenger fee, generating about $4 million annually. Spending is restricted under the Maritime Security Act to issues of safety and efficiency for the transport of passengers.

Hartle said that if the sculpture was not located on the seawalk, fees could not be used to pay for any of it.

Uncertainty over the cost of the project, its location and whether the committee could raise enough money to complete it seemed to sway some board members against funding it.

"It seems we're putting the cart before the horse here," Assembly member Merrill Sanford said. "Somewhere we have to get those figures, and we're not there yet."

The sculpture would be of a breaching humpback rising from a circular pool of water, according to the committee. Complex water features would create mist over the whale's head as water sheets from both flippers cascade over its body and plunge back into the pool.

The sculpture and fountain would be a magnet for residents and visitors, and a dramatic educational opportunity for youth, according to committee chairwoman Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy, who wrote to the Assembly in August describing the project.

The committee wants to complete the sculpture so it can be part of celebrations for the 50th anniversary of Alaska's statehood next year. It raised $350,000 in donations and pledges, according to an August report by a committee member.

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at 523-2279 or e-mail

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