By Rick Smeriglio for SCN — At Tuesday evening’s City Council work session to discuss funding a harbor crane, Seward’s mariners showed up in strength to once again demonstrate their support for the project. Of the many ideas batted around from the floor, none seemed to gain clear support from City Council or, almost as important, city administration. Administration has prepared and Council has just approved a balanced budget that includes about a million dollars’ worth of cutting and rebalancing. The new budget does not include an appropriation for a crane, estimated to cost $350,000 to $500,000. City of Seward does have the crane on its list of priorities for calendar year 2016, funding not specified.
Assistant city manager Ron Long started the work session discussion by briefly outlining two possible ways that administration has evaluated to pay for the crane. Long stated that city administration found both non-viable.
An additional one percent fish tax would generate enough revenue to pay for the crane over a number of years. Long argued against the tax increase saying that by Alaska statute, the raw fish tax had to benefit all citizens. He likened it to a severance tax on the common property fish resource. Currently, half the tax goes to the Alaska treasury where, in theory, it benefits all, and half returns to municipalities that host fish processors. City of Seward used to put its share of the fish tax into the harbor fund. To help balance the budget, City Council now puts fish tax revenues into its general fund. Long also argued that imposition of an additional local tax would in effect, make commercial catches worth less in Seward and would tend therefore, to make fishers sell their fish elsewhere.
Long introduced the idea of an increase in local fuel tax to pay for the crane. He went on to discuss lengthy pay-back times relative to the amount that the tax increase would generate yearly versus the initial cost of the crane.
From the floor, general manager of Kenai Fjords Tours, Ron Willie, spoke against increasing the fuel tax. He said that fuel made up the largest single operating expense for KFT. He also said that he did not like the idea of fish tax revenues flowing into City of Seward’s general fund instead of the harbor fund.
Supporters of the crane offered up ideas to pay for it. Fisherman Corey Harris said that a charge of $75 per hour for use of the crane seemed appropriate. Fish House owner Mark Clemmons said that in the past when his company offered crane services, it realized revenues of $20,000 to $40,000 dollars yearly from the venture. Harris expressed support for borrowing as a way to pay for the crane. Rhonda Hubbard of Kruzof Fisheries expressed support for borrowing through bond issuance as a way to finance the crane. She said that the city could enforce its wharfage tariff to capture revenue from commercial fishers who would use the crane to offload fish for truck transport out of town. Commercial fisherman Tim McDonald said that if the city captured revenue from depreciation of the city-owned, 5,000-ton ship lift at SMIC across the bay, it could pay for the crane in one year. Fisherman and Port and Commerce Advisory Board member Bob Linville proposed that City of Seward use ten percent of its yearly share of fish tax revenue to pay for the crane over a period of about 10 years.
Crane supporters reiterated the many reasons to have a public-use crane in the small boat harbor. Time equals money during the money-making season; fishers can not afford delays waiting to borrow a private crane. Investment in harbor infrastructure could improve Seward’s economic future and could lower the cost of vessel repairs in Seward. Commercial fisherman have clamored for many years to get a crane. Ports that compete with Seward already have cranes. People have asked many times over many years.
Charles McEldowney, general manager of Icicle Seafoods, Seward Plant, has gone on record as opposed to the public crane proposal. He said that he allows local individuals to use the several cranes owned by Icicle in the small boat harbor. That includes individuals who do not sell fish to Icicle. Icicle Seafoods processes fish in Seward. McEldowney pointed out that local shares of State fish taxes go to municipalities where processing occurs. If a new, public crane allowed fishing boats to offload fish for overland transport to places other than Seward, then Seward would lose revenue, McEldowney said. Boom trucks currently enable just that every year on I-dock. City of Seward has received slightly over $500,000 annually for the last three years from its share of fish tax. Its has received somewhat less than that on average for the last five years.
Kit Durnil, manager of Resurrection Bay Seafoods which buys fish in Seward, said that his processing plant at the south end of town has a 1-ton crane on its privately owned dock. He said that although his company gives priority for use of the crane to people selling fish, Resurrection Bay Seafoods informally allows others to use the crane, generally free of charge. He expressed concern that any increase in fish taxes would cause fisherman to sell their fish elsewhere.
Brooke Andrews, recently appointed PACAB member and commercial fisher, spoke toward the end of the work session. She expressed her frustration with the public process and alluded to the frustration of others at the long-standing lack of progress in getting a crane in the harbor for all to use. She supported paying for a crane with existing taxes and a loan, but also pointed to a larger issue: that commercial fishing interests can not get action from City of Seward despite their strenuous efforts to do so in recent years.
Andrews said, “We need to show fishermen that we care about them. That’s the most important part here.”