The Ketchikan City Council in its regular meeting Thursday approved only one motion on its agenda — the first reading of a new ordinance that makes it illegal to store personal property — including camping facilities and camping paraphernalia — in off-street parking lots.
The ordinance allows designated city employees to remove such personal property after posting a notice that if the personal property is not removed within 72 hours after the date of the posting, the personal property will be "deemed intentionally abandoned and subject to removal and possible destruction."
Violation of the ordinance will incur a fine of up to $300.
During public comment, community member Ryan McHale spoke against approval of the ordinance, arguing that with local housing prices rising precipitously and in low supply, that it would be a "cruel and unproductive" move.
He said, "We need an evidence-based approach that is informed and compassionate."
Community member John Stewart also spoke to the council about the ordinance, but in support of it. He offered alternative ideas, such as designating some areas in which camping would be allowed, and urged community leaders to come together to create better solutions for those people experiencing homelessness.
The creation of the new ordinance was sparked by problems reported by residents of the neighborhood surrounding the parking lot located on the corner of Grant and Edmonds streets. Stewart and Silvia Greuter spoke to the council during the regular council meeting of Oct. 7, and reported experiencing theft, noise, people relieving themselves in the lot, and illegal drug transactions occurring during all hours of the day.
During discussion of the ordinance prior to the vote, Council Member Riley Gass said that although he was sympathetic to the people camping in the area, he felt the tax-paying property owners in the neighborhood deserved to have the ordinance approved.
Council Member Janalee Gage agreed, saying that when people there can't feel safe sleeping in their own homes, surrounded by noise and disruption, it is time to work on solutions. She mentioned that she'd fielded complaints from parents who had found used needles lying in the playground across the street from that lot as well.
"What's going on up there is not appropriate," she said.
Gage also mentioned that the campers also are unsafe living in those conditions, especially in the middle of winter, and would be better served by the nearby overnight warming center on Park Ave. She also mentioned the urgent need for agencies that serve the homeless population to come together with local governments to come up with more housing — a move that Stewart, in his presentation, also stressed as of critical importance.
The motion to approve the new ordinance in first reading was passed unanimously.
Also in Thursday's meeting, the council spent considerable time discussing the city's existing "single-unit sales tax maximum" tax cap on purchases, which in 2019 was adjusted from purchases of $1,000 to $2,000.
Council Member Lallette Kistler argued for a more "equitable" tax structure, in which the base sales tax rate is lowered, but the cap is raised. She said that Juneau assesses a 5% sales tax on purchases and uses a cap of $12,000. She said that a structure like that one allows for less affluent community members to pay less in ratio to their incomes, and more affluent people who can afford large purchases to pay a ratio that is in balance with their incomes.
Kistler also argued that even the existence of a tax cap is a "bookkeeping nightmare" for business owners.
Gage mentioned sales tax approaches taken in other Southeast communities as ideas that Ketchikan could consider, such as not applying a cap to jewelry purchases, or charging a higher sales tax during cruise seasons.
She also argued that a tax cap does nothing for local community members.
Council Member Abby Bradberry, pointing out that the city's tax rate of 4.5.% is combined with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough's of 2%, so that the issue should be discussed in the cooperative committee with Borough Assembly representatives.
Gass said that he was uncomfortable with the idea of government taking money from community members at all, let alone government bodies discussing how to get more and more, even though he was aware that the funds are crucial to supply services.
Gage accentuated the need to make tax collection as fair as possible, as it's the only way for the government to pay for services. She also emphasized that tourists use infrastructure such as sewer, water and garbage at a high rate, so should be taxed higher to pay for the maintenance of those services.
The council then agreed by a four-hands vote to refer the discussion to the cooperative relations committee between the council and the Borough Assembly.
Another item the council considered at Thursday's meeting is a new chapter proposed to be added to the Ketchikan Municipal Code addressing the use of snowmachines and all-purpose vehicles on local roads with posted speed limits of 45 mph or less.
On Oct. 14, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy's office adopted regulation changes to the Alaska Administrative Code to allow all-purpose vehicles such as four-wheelers to legally operate on roads with speed limits of up to 45 mph. The state's changes went into effect on Jan. 1.
Written into the state's amendments is a section that allows municipalities to prohibit such vehicles on local roads. With that in mind, an ordinance to prohibit those vehicles, as well as snowmachines, on the City of Ketchikan's roadways, was prepared by City of Ketchikan Attorney Mitch Seaver.
At the Dec. 16 meeting, Gass made a motion to "indefinitely" postpone a decision on the proposed ordinance to prohibit those vehicles on the Ketchikan's roadways.
The motion to table the ordinance was approved 4-3, with council members Gage, Mark Flora and Judy Zenge voting no.
Kistler, who voted in favor of tabling the proposed ordinance — in effect allowing the APVs to operate on Ketchikan's roads in sync with the state regulation — requested that the motion be brought back for consideration at Thursday's meeting.
With no discussion, the council unanimously voted against reconsideration of the motion, thus allowing the city's regulations concerning the use of APVs to remain in agreement with the new state regulations.
The council at Thursday's meeting also discussed a proposal, brought forward by Bradberry, to create a new tourism manager position for the city.
The topic first was discussed at the council's regular meeting of Nov. 22.
In that meeting, Zenge suggested that it might be advantageous for the city to hire, as Juneau recently did, a tourism manager who could focus on how to most efficiently manage the cruise ship tourism economy.
Bradberry started the discussion by stating that currently there is no person specifically working for the city to achieve goals with the cruise industry, resulting in fees remaining flat over the years.
She said she envisioned the tourism manager to report directly to the city manager. That person primarily would work on relationships with the cruise lines.
"Somebody who's actually in our court," Bradberry said.
As she has reminded the council in several meetings, she reiterated the need for a long-term plan for the port as well, and said that a tourism manager also could work on strategies for maintaining the port infrastructure.
She argued that the Ketchikan Visitors Bureau staff focus on different areas of tourism, and that they aren't able to focus on the areas that Bradberry said are crucial to growing and strengthening Ketchikan's cruise ship economy.
City of Ketchikan Mayor Dave Kiffer, as well as council members Jai Mahtani, Flora and Zenge agreed. Mahtani said that he felt it would be very useful for a new tourism manager to work in conjunction with the KVB.
Gass said that it might be better to hold off hiring for that position until the robustness of upcoming cruise seasons are assessed, but Bradberry stressed the need for moving ahead immediately, because cruise lines plan two years in advance.
The council agreed, in a four-hands vote, to direct city staff to contact a hiring agency to draft a Ketchikan tourism manager job description that the council could consider in an upcoming meeting.
The meeting was ongoing at deadline, and a followup story is planned for a future edition of Ketchikan Daily News.