Business, City of Seward, Economics, Harbor News, Maritime, Opinion

Op-ed: Crane Purchase and Placement deserves Funding Priority in Seward’s Harbor

Op-ed by Rhonda Hubbard –

Mariners and harbor users have spoken for over a decade regarding the need for a working crane in Seward’s Small Boat Harbor. Seward is among Alaska’s top 5 fishing ports in value and volume and among the top 20 in the U.S. Yet unlike other major ports in Alaska, it has no independent working crane to service this economic driver in our community. For several years, locating a working crane in our harbor has been discussed in exhaustive fashion and fully vetted through the Port and Commerce Advisory Board (PACAB) and was the subject of two recent Council work sessions. This led to it being placed on the legislative priority list of projects since 2012 and the Seward Harbor Capital Improvement project list for the last three budget cycles. In spite of such prioritization, and public process, there has been a sense of resistance among our city executives in making this purchase happen that is inexplicable.

Boom truck prepares to offload halibut from boats at I-dock to trucks northbound from Seward small boat harbor. Photo by R. Smeriglio
Boom truck prepares to offload halibut from boats at I-dock to trucks northbound from Seward small boat harbor.

After lengthy discussion and industry input over several months, PACAB unanimously passed Resolution 2014-1 on March 19, 2014 recommending placement of an 8 ton crane on I Dock to best serve the mariner community. Such recommendation had merit not only for utility purposes, but also because our community was reminded of a fatal accident that occurred in 2012 when a boom truck loading fishing gear off the T-Dock tipped, throwing the operator off of the dock. It is common for commercial fishermen and others to park boom trucks on the decks of existing timber piers to load/unload gear and fish. However this method can be awkward and very dangerous at times.

In addition to an earlier study received by PACAB entitled “Public Use Crane Preliminary Design Report, October 2013” that cost in excess of $5,000, Council approved $9,862 in May of 2015 for another preliminary design report. Both were produced by the same engineering firm, Moffatt & Nichol. The second study, entitled “Public Use Crane Preliminary Design Report, September 2015” provided little more info than the 2013 report and was basically a cost update. The engineers were steered towards analyzing options of either a 2 or 5 ton crane located at the travel-lift bulkhead or I-Dock. Although a 5 ton capacity crane is not as desirable as an 8 ton crane, it is acceptable and became a Council compromise, while anything of lesser capacity would be unacceptable. It is also realized that the travel-lift bulkhead has limited access for certain sized vessels that would commonly use the crane.

The engineers’ recommended alternative in the latest study was a 2 ton crane located at the travel-lift bulkhead, priced at $290,373 including a 25% contingency. Unfortunately, the study was absent of any indigenous knowledge of Seward’s mariner culture, or the extensive public process which preceded and followed the October 2013 study. The preferred alternative presented in Crane Study #2 by local and future users for accessibility, utility, safety, and cost/benefit concerns was the 5 ton crane on I Dock. This alternative was priced at a seemingly inflated but safe amount of $330,371 including a 25% contingency. PACAB unanimously passed Resolution 2015-3 at its November 4, 2015 meeting recommending Council approve a 5 ton crane on I Dock and pursue funding.

In spite of noted priority and need for a harbor crane, the whole process has been delayed to the latter part of City Budget planning and hence conveniently missed inclusion for this fiscal year. However council member Darling did her best on the last meeting of her Council term in October to have the crane included in the budget with the caveat that additional revenues could possibly be drummed up for its purchase. Industry and other persons of interest believed it should come from commercial fish tax revenues that the city receives as revenue sharing from the State. This amounted to over $450K for 2014 and a total of 4.2 million dollars over the last ten years. Administration is quick to defend their designated use of those revenues outside the Harbor enterprise fund, and made it clear that the crane purchase would have to compete with other general fund demands. Dedication of only a small percentage of future Fish Tax revenues would be necessary to fund the crane project.

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Council then tasked administration to glean options and ideas for funding like an extra fish or fuel tax for a limited time period and present such at a work session prior to the November 9th council meeting. At that work session administration came up with the not so brilliant idea of a $.11/gal fuel tax. This was clearly a non-starter among the mariner community driving away more business than a crane would bring in, not to mention provocation of a potential anti-crane sentiment undoing years of effort.

While it was not timely to alter budget numbers at the 11th hour of approving the city fiscal budget on November 9th, public and Council out-cry persisted. Such included the comparison of crane funding to the prompt purchase of a 330 ton travel lift in July of 2014. That purchase was never presented to PACAB for review, and involved creative financing consisting almost entirely of loans from the General Fund reserves and the Motor Pool Internal Service fund that amounted to over $1.4M. (See Council Resolution 2014-054).

As observed with the 330 ton travel lift purchase, coming up with funding options outside of the budget planning process is not uncommon. The crane project is not dead and we must stay encouraged in exploring ways to fund it. We have seen often in our community where if something is really wanted by certain people in the right places it can happen. The crane project has gone through exhaustive reviews, studies, and long public process in which the mariner community has clearly spoken of its need. In spite of what appears to be administrative resistance, in an era of budgetary shortfalls this is no time to be shooting down the support of revenue producing opportunities and services needed by a variety of businesses and mariners who prove to be an economic driver in this community.

While funding methods are explored, please get the message to our Council members and local administration to support the placement of a public use crane in our harbor sooner than later.

It is long over-due and needs to be made a priority.

Rhonda A. Hubbard
Lifelong Seward Resident
Active in the Commercial Fishing Industry

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