Title Five is the chapter of Haines Borough Code that concerns tour permits. Its purpose is to regulate tours in the Borough. Proposed fee increases for those permits are generating hearty discussion.
The tourism advisory board, or TAB, was tasked with clarifying Title 5 to make the administration process less time-consuming and burdensome for the borough. TAB recommended extending the life of tour operator permits to two years and increasing the permit fee.
Borough administration introduced a sliding scale of fees for tour operators–up to $1,500 in fees for tours that have been operating for more than three years and see more than 10,000 yearly visitors. As it stands in code, the borough may use permit fees to cover the cost of issuing and processing permits.
Critics of the sliding scale say this is overreach and that it opens the borough to litigation. At a TAB meeting this week Karen Hess of Chilkat River Adventures said she and her husband have already gone to court over a similar issue.
“Duck and I won a lawsuit based on that very thing against DNR. If they put in tiered pricing I guarantee you we are going to sue the borough,” said Hess.
Tour operator Sean Gaffney is the Executive Director of Alaska Mountain Guides. He supported a permit fee increase at the TAB meeting, but says the sliding scale fees are unnecessary because the industry pays its way in sales tax. He warns that fees could have cascading economic consequences.
“It is penalizing us. It’s hamstringing the economy,” Gaffney said. “As somebody who has worked so hard to help us have a balanced, healthy, vibrant economy, it’s incredibly difficult to see the borough pushing down on that.”
He says the industry contributed to an increase of $200,000 in sales tax in the last two years. One percent of the sales tax in Haines goes to Fund 23. That’s money for tourism promotion and economic development. It pays for things like the Haines vacation planner and work trips the administration takes promote the borough.
At this week’s commerce committee meeting Borough Manager Debra Schnabel said that sales tax covers much of the expense of maintaining public infrastructure that supports the tourism industry. But she says it doesn’t go all the way.
“Sales tax income does defray a lot of the costs we incur, but I would say if we added it all up… I guarantee you it’s more than $25,000. I guarantee you that,” said Schnabel.
The estimated cost of the borough clerk’s time spent on tour operator regulation is $25,000. That’s not all the borough does to support the industry: Schnabel says the administration advocated for industry interests during the state highway project and spent $26,000 cleaning toilets for tourists in 2018.
Mayor Jan Hill was present at the TAB meeting. She says the proposal needs to stay in committee until its fixed.
“Last night it was clear to me this is not ready to go to the assembly for their consideration,” Mayor Hill said. “Unless the admin pulls something together that is more palatable to the industry and this body, I am going to recommend that we refer it back to the commerce committee.”
TAB is sending their original recommendations to the borough–with an increase in permit fees and a longer permit period to cut down on administrative burden, but no sliding scale of fees.
Current annual tour operator fees are $25 year. TAB proposes $500 biannual fees.The assembly will decide whether or not to move forward with the recommendations at their February 12th meeting.