How much should free fish cost?
The paradoxical question is being bandied about at the highest levels of Kenai city government.
With the nodding of heads of several Kenai City Council members Wednesday, the question of whether or not to charge Kenai residents to park or to launch their boats from the city dock while dipnetting for salmon at the mouth of the Kenai River was officially dispatched to city administration.
Vice Mayor Joe Moore is asking fellow council members to consider creating parking or launching passes for Kenai residents whether they are property owners or renters as long as they reside within the city limits of Kenai.
Residents would be required to bring proof of residency to Kenai City Hall to obtain a pass, which would allow free parking at the south and north beaches during dipnet season as well as free boat launching at the city dock during the fishery.
“I think it’s a long-overdue idea,” said council member Mike Boyle. “This is something we can do for our citizens.”
In a letter to the council, Moore said the state-mandated dipnet fishery taxed city services to the point the parking fee was necessitated; the fees generated a surplus to the city general fund; and he believes the surplus should be passed on to residents.
After Wednesday’s meeting, Moore acknowledged that, theoretically, the surplus does go to the general fund, thereby requiring less to be collected from taxpayers resulting in the surplus being passed on to the residents.
He said he received an e-mail message from one resident who felt he is being taxed doubly because he has paid for the improvements and is now being charged to use them.
Council member Rick Ross said he would like to know what plans the city has for further developments in the beach areas before deciding on whether to exempt residents from the fees.
“Are we going to charge the users or pass the costs on to property taxpayers?” he asked.
City attorney Cary Graves gave his legal opinion that exempting residents from the fees could be considered discriminatory because the beaches between high tide and low tide are subject to the public trust doctrine, which guarantees a public access easement.
He suggested the council possibly consider a seasonal rate discount for residents. The discount would be designed to give an economic benefit to a resident who might dipnet throughout the fishery, but not to someone who only visited Kenai for one day or a weekend of dipnetting.
Moore argued that charging people who park in the city beach lots was not denying access to the beaches, and charging people to launch their boats at the city dock did not deny access because boaters could launch their boats from other ramps and have access to the river. Council member Bob Molloy asked Graves to update his research to insure that the most recent case laws are being referenced.
City administration plans to bring its findings back to the council at its May 16 meeting.
Although some council members expressed some urgency because the dipnet season opens in July, others said this might be a good study year to determine how many dipnetters are Kenai residents and how many are visitors from out of town.
Phil Hermanek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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