Yakutat moves ahead with tax despite resistance from cruise industry

Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Yakutat is moving ahead with a $1.50 per passenger cruise ship tax its Assembly approved in January, despite efforts by the cruise industry to avoid it.

Cruise officials met with Yakutat leaders in March and April to try to negotiate an alternative to the tax, but the two sides never reached agreement, said City Manager Paul Wescott. Now he is moving ahead with a system to collect the tax.

The industry still hopes to defeat the tax at a meeting tentatively scheduled for June 6, said John Hansen of the North West CruiseShip Association, which represents nine cruise lines operating in Alaska.

Hansen called the tax a terrible precedent, saying the two sides probably will go to court if they can't reach a compromise. The tax is unprecedented because the ships do not dock in Yakutat.

Yakutat leaders have defended the tax, saying ill passengers from vessels traveling through borough waters have taken a toll on city medical services.

The industry would rather reimburse Yakutat for expenses than pay the tax, said Hansen, noting such a precedent would make the industry vulnerable to similar taxes from other communities the ships pass en route to destinations worldwide.

''When you look at the number of locations around the world that that kind of precedent could apply, it would be enormous,'' Hansen said.

Wescott, the city manager, said it's possible the Assembly will rescind the tax after the June 6 meeting, but he speculated that civic leaders would be unhappy with two recent illegal wastewater discharges by cruise ships in Southeast Alaska.

The first tax payment likely would come due at the end of July, said tax clerk Mark Sappington, who is gathering passenger manifests to estimate how much the city is owed.

Meanwhile, in separate negotiations, the cruise industry and Yakutat Natives remain deadlocked on a key environmental issue. Tribal leaders are concerned the ships are hurting seal populations in Disenchantment Bay, home of the Hubbard Glacier, a popular tourist attraction.

The bay is a prime birthing area for seals, which are a subsistence food for some residents who fear the ships are scaring pups from the safety of the ice floes. The Yakutat Tlingit Tribe wants the ships to stay roughly four miles from the glacier during pupping season, which overlaps with the summer tourism season, said tribal environmental planner Bert Adams Jr.

The cruise industry has resisted the boundary, saying it puts ships too far away from the glacier.

The industry instead promised to stay a half-mile from the glacier, keep 500 yards from ice floes bearing seals and avoid a seal-pupping area between the mainland and what's called Egg Island, Hansen said. The industry also will fund a study to measure the effect of cruise ships on seals, Hansen said.

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