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By JANALEE GAGE
While I’ve been on the Ketchikan City Council since 2015, I speak here as a community member, not for other council members or the council.
Community Members are busy, and expect their elected officials to do the job of planning and administering the city. I believe every council member has the community’s best interest at heart. However, some people and groups would like to skew the facts so we don’t see the truth, or that what they get is more beneficial to their pocketbook, not the community as a whole.
It is also important that we stay on top of important issues especially if we want change. Right now, the people who show up at every council meeting are the same 45 people who’ve benefited most from the current system.
Recently, there was an ad in the paper “sponsored by the public interest” by a group called OURPORT. Who is that? And who’s interest are they watching out for?
The ad questions how the City of Ketchikan can maintain and spend $20 million to upgrade our own port as it has done for more than a century. In actuality we have spent $80 million.
I don’t believe the city ran the port over a 100 years ago. It wasn’t until the March 1960 fire that burned down the waterfront, including one of my family’s’ businesses and home, The Hunt Store, and part of the cold storage. That devastated many long-time residents and changed their lives and the waterfront of Ketchikan forever. And it wasn’t until 1975 when the city’s Port Enterprise Fund was established, probably the beginning of our current operating model.
Ketchikan already is in bed with the owners of Berth 4, with a 30-year lease. The City of Ketchikan currently pays, per the agreement, docking, maintenance, property tax and sales tax for the owners.
The city’s lease agreement for Berth 4 is with the Ketchikan Dock Company. According to state records, the Ketchikan Dock Company is 55% owned by Survey Point Holdings, in addition to Holland America Line (15%), Royal Caribbean Cruises (15%) and Royal Hiway Tours (15%). Survey Point Holdings is also the sole owner of Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska Southeast Inc.
Business is business, and I don’t begrudge that they made a very good deal for themselves, nor will I pretend they wouldn’t do everything necessary to protect that investment, but I believe it benefits only a small fraction of the Ketchikan community. I don’t believe it benefits the majority of Ketchikan residents.
The city pays a base rent for Berth 4 at $1.8 million, which goes up when the number of cruise ship passengers rises. For example, the wharfage fee goes up if the city exceeds 820,000 passengers. This doesn’t just mean if the passenger numbers increase at Berth 4, it means the number of passengers who come to Ketchikan a year total, no matter which dock they berth at.
The adjustment for passengers over 820,000 is equal to $7.50 per passenger. When the number of passengers reaches 900,000, the annual base rent will be a minimum of $2.4 million a year.
We are currently at 1.3 million passengers. Of course, they want more passengers! It means more money from our city.
They’ll tell you it comes from the head tax, not the people. But think about it. As passenger numbers go up, the more money we take from the other three docks to pay them.
But is this really the point?
No. We need to understand that we cannot use the funds collected from the port and apply it to what’s really impacted by daily visitors. The $11 million OURPORT is talking about can only be used for the berths, the port — not the infrastructures that visitors impact daily.
So, who pays for those impacted infrastructures? Residents, through fees and taxes we have to raise as the cost to maintain our water, sewer, garbage, etc., goes up.
So for the past five years the council has been talking about how to move forward and accommodate the larger cruise ships that are being built without putting the burden on the community.
Going out for a bond, and doing it ourselves would be great, but, would leave us with a huge debt, a burden that sits on all of the community to pay off. Is it realistic? I don’t believe so.
A concession isn’t about selling out or losing control of our port. It’s about brokering a deal as smart as the one the Berth 4 owners have with the City. Someone else is paying for the improvements, Maintenance, staffing and leasing it from the city, with an iron-clad agreement that puts into place what we, the City of Ketchikan, decide is fair and good for our community. We still own it, but instead of having funding that can only be used in port items only due to federal laws, we get annual funding that can be used for what the community needs and not just for the cruise ships.
In a concessions agreement we can say the port is ours to use when no ships are in off season, and when ships leave the port at night, etc. We can create a 20-year lease where the company takes all responsibility for upkeep and construction of additions with our approval, the same agreement we have with Berth 4, without the of cost on the community.
Janalee Gage is a member of the Ketchikan City Council.