At a Skagway Borough Assembly meeting last week, several residents spoke in favor of a one-percent sales tax increase to help pay for the construction of an aquatic wellness center, part of the recreation center expansion. But that isn’t the only major project Skagway will have to fund in upcoming years. So, the assembly voted the proposed sales tax increase pay for more than the pool.
The expense of an aquatic wellness center has sparked a wider conversation at assembly meetings – about the financial sustainability of the small town taking on a number of large, expensive projects. Those include a public safety facility, a recycling center, and senior center.
“We are right now very financially fit,” said Borough Manager Scott Hahn. “But that doesn’t mean that tomorrow we couldn’t push ourselves too far. You don’t want to live from paycheck to paycheck, you don’t want to get so much debt or expense that you have nothing left over for incidentals or things that come up.”
North Wind Architects estimates the recreation center expansion, which could include the aquatic wellness center, would cost between $5 and $20 million.
The assembly considered an ordinance that would raise sales tax one percent during the second and third quarters of the year to repay bonds for the aquatic center. Several residents said a sales tax increase is a sacrifice they’re willing to make for a pool. Josh Coughran pointed out that swimming is a life-saving skill.
“I’ve been a lifeguard, I’ve had family members who have life guarded, who have the opportunity to save a life,” Coughran said. “And I think that once you go down this road, you never know where the influence could stop.”
There were a couple residents who said the pool is something the community wants, but doesn’t need.
“I’m not in support of the pool,” Rocky Outcalt said. “I would love to have a new swimming pool, I would also like to have a new truck.”
A few residents who were in favor of the sales tax increase said it should be a year-round hike, so the burden doesn’t fall on unfairly on seasonal residents and cruise ship visitors.
“I do think that we should carry any sales tax year-round,” Elizabeth Lavoie said. “I mean, we’re using it. It’s ours. I think that’s fair and right. And I do agree that we seem to be good at wanting things, and not as good at paying for them.”
Assembly members pointed to an example of that, when voters last year approved a bond for the public safety building project but rejected a sales tax increase that would repay the bond. The assembly approved an amendment to the ordinance that would make the sales tax increase year-round and immune to tax holidays.
Resident Jeremy Simmons suggested that the proposed sales tax hike should go to repaying bonds for projects generally, not just the aquatic center.
“We [would] have this one percent sales tax which is committed to covering the obligations that we take on that bonding process,” Simmons said.
Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. proposed an amendment that the sales tax increase be intended for debt retirement of bonds and loans both current and future – so it’s not specific to the aquatic center. That amendment passed, 4-2, with Angela Grieser and Jay Burnham opposed. At the end of the meeting, Jay Burnham said he was not happy with that change.
“It seems like it’s turned into trying to pay down debt for the city and the pool’s getting totally removed from it and it’s just a sales tax increase, which I would not be for,” Jay Burnham said. “I’m for a rec center expansion and it seems like large majority of the town is too.”
The sales tax increase ordinance will go to a third reading and public hearing at the next assembly meeting.
The recreation center discussion is ongoing, but the assembly still hasn’t decided on the model for the project. At an earlier meeting, the recreation center board said its preference was a six-lane pool with a hot tub and therapy pool.
The assembly decided to form an ad hoc committee to explore what model the rec center expansion should take. Assemblyman Spencer Morgan said the committee could dig into what the community needs in a rec center versus what the community wants.