Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:39 PM on Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Passenger fee spiked by harbor committee

Changes go before city council May 14

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

A proposal to increase Homer port and harbor fees drew about a dozen people to testify at last week's Homer Port and Harbor Commission meeting. All of them said the same thing: Don't impose a $2 a person passenger fee on water taxis, tour boats and charter boats.

The commission listened and unanimously voted to strike down the idea.

The commission's vote is only a recommendation, and the full packet of new fees — called a tariff — goes before the Homer City Council this month. The council holds a public hearing at 6 p.m. May 14 for its regular meeting in the Cowles Council Chambers, Homer City Hall. A second hearing is May 29, when the council is slated to vote.

Along with voting down the $2 passenger fee, the commission also made these recommendations to the tariff:

• Not approve a proposed 10 percent increase in ice fees;

• Approve a proposed lineal foot calculation for dockage that would base the rate on the size of vessels;

• Approve a fuel wharfage increase from $.0103 a gallon to $.02 a gallon, and

• Approve a moorage increase of about 15 percent, to $40.50 per lineal foot.

Motions to increase the fuel wharfage to $.025 a gallon and the moorage to $42.50 per lineal foot, about a 20.5 percent increase, failed.

The Harbor Improvement Committee, a city of Homer group tasked with making recommendations for fixing up Homer's harbor, has proposed $12.4 million in port and harbor projects, including a new harbormaster's office, harbor entrance erosion control, Ramp 3 gangway and approach upgrades, harbor float replacements, and power upgrades for System 5, the large-vessel dock. The city proposes to pay partially for the improvements with an $8.1 million bond, and seeks a $4.1 million matching grant from the state Municipal Harbors program to pay for some projects. The fee increases are proposed to pay for an annual bond payment of about $572,000. The city faces a July 1 deadline to apply for the state grant.

By not recommending some fee increases, the Port and Harbor Commission lowered the amount available to pay for the proposed $8.1 million bond. Commissioner Bob Howard said he calculated the recommendations would fund about a $6 million bond. On a motion by Commissioner Steve Zimmerman, the commission erred on the conservative side and recommended about a $4 million bond for $8 million in projects — essentially what could be paid for by a matching $4 million Municipal Harbors grant. The commission recommended funding the Ramp 3 gangway and approach, portions of the harbor float replacement, and the upgrade to System 5.

"I think this is a great compromise," said commissioner Pete Wedin. "You can't just fix them in one fell swoop and think the people using the harbor can afford it."

Much of the testimony against the $2 fee came from charter captains, but they were joined by tour boat and water taxi operators.

"That's a terrible idea," Tim Cashman of Alaska Coastal Marine, a tour boat operator, said of the $2 passenger fee. "As a small business owner, we're being squeezed."

A $2 passenger fee for boats with eight or more seats is on the books, but has only been charged for cruise ship passengers being lightered from ships anchored in the bay to the docks. Commissioner Bob Howard clarified that the change would mean enforcing the fee and assessing it to all passenger boats.

"I'm opposed to any kind of targeting tax," said Sean Martin of North Country Charters. "I feel it's unfair to charge any users in the harbor walking down the slip to a boat."

Those arguments swayed the commission.

"It really wasn't targeted at the fleet we have now," said Port and Harbor Commissioner Pete Wedin in voting down the $2 passenger fee. "The fact it was never enforced, there's a good reason for that."

The commission's recommendation left off a new harbormaster's office and harbor entrance erosion control. Because those projects aren't direct harbor improvements, they aren't eligible for the Municipal Harbors grant program. A project to extend the Homer Spit Trail to Land's End would go by the harbor entrance at the end of Fish Dock Road and near Coal Point Park. Wedin asked Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins if some of the trail project money could be used to address harbor erosion since the trail passes by it.

"If we're going to get the Spit Trail as envisioned, we're going to have to deal with this erosion," Commissioner Bob Howard also noted.

Hawkins said it might be possible to stretch trail funds to address the erosion issue. He also said the city plans to apply for Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to pay for erosion caused by storm damage.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.