There were two tie votes broken by Skagway Mayor Mark Schaefer at a borough assembly meeting Thursday night. The votes were about two big issues the town is facing: paying for a proposed swimming pool, and leveraging $7 million in state funding for port development.
At a December meeting, the assembly failed to pass a one percent sales tax increase ordinance to help repay debt and bonds for major projects. Assembly members Jay Burnham and Angela Grieser voted against it because they thought the tax hike should go solely to a proposed aquatic wellness center.
Burnham didn’t want the discussion of a sales tax increase to end there. He asked that a new ordinance be placed on Thursday’s agenda. If approved, it would have put to a public vote a one percent, year-round sales tax increase to pay for the aquatic center
“The reason that I did bring it forward again is because I think there is a need and want to have a swimming pool in Skagway. And to put this one percent tax into effect would give it a vehicle to come to fruition,” Burnham said.
Grieser said that the assembly should approve the ordinance because it would let the community decide in a public vote. But public sentiment at this particular meeting was not favorable to the pool.
“I think that its’ prudent to wait and see what the state is gonna do on a sales tax level,” said resident Mike Healy.
“I don’t see how anybody could rightfully approve a one percent sales tax that everybody’s gonna pay forever — that that will ever work,” said Wayne Selmer. “I mean, that’s wrong to the citizens of Skagway.”
Healy and Selmer were two of several people who asked the assembly to be cautious, especially since the state could raise sales or income tax to deal with Alaska’s deficit. Assemblyman Tim Cochran agreed.
“If we absolutely need a pool, let’s get something small — something that’s manageable,” Cochran said. “Everything that we have in this town has to be subsidized. We don’t have the luxury of a population that can sustain anything.”
When the time came for a vote, Grieser, Jay Burnham and Dan Henry supported the ordinance. Cochran, Spencer Morgan and Steve Burnham Jr. voted no. Schaefer broke the tie vote.
“No,” Schaefer voted. “Because I think some of the points are valid and we need to do more research. That’s not saying no to a pool, just to collect some more thoughts.”
Another argument from those who opposed the tax increase was that it isn’t smart to devote money to a pool when the future of the town’s biggest source of revenue – the port – is uncertain. A couple weeks ago, the state approved a one-year extension for Skagway to use about $7 million in grant funds for dock improvements. The borough now has until June of 2017. But with the Gateway Project on hold, the municipality doesn’t have a plan for how to use that money.
Cochran is the assembly liaison to the port commission. He said that group thinks a floating dock to accommodate larger cruise ships should be the priority. There was discussion about where a floating dock could go, since it’s unclear how much White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad is willing to cooperate.
Grieser said since the assembly doesn’t have a definitive idea of what path to pursue, it doesn’t make sense for the port commission to continue discussing it. Here’s Grieser with Cochran responding.
“In the meantime I’d like to make a motion that we suspend the activity of the port commission until the assembly has a specific direction,” Grieser said.
“I don’t think it’s productive putting them on hold,” Cochran said.
The question of suspending port commission activity garnered another tie vote, with the same members voting on opposite sides: Grieser, Henry and Jay Burnham in favor, Cochran, Morgan and Steve Burnham against. Mayor Schaefer broke the tie with a ‘no’ vote. The assembly scheduled a work session to come up with a direction for port improvements, which the port commission is invited to. That session is scheduled for Friday, January 29 at 4 p.m.
Not everything at the meeting revolved around pools and ports. The assembly also talked about the possibility for the municipality to purchase deceased resident Bud Matthews’ Long Bay property. In letters of support, residents explained that Matthews let the public use the beach area of his property for a park.
“I’m here to encourage you to look into Long Bay and the Matthews property, to keep the beach as a beach,” said resident Orion Hanson. “It’s very important to this community.”
Schaefer said he talked to Matthews’ family.
“They are totally interested in having some preservation there for public use, public space,” he said.
The assembly members were unanimous on this one. They voted to get an appraisal of the property so the borough could consider making an offer.