In a split vote Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted to move forward with a proposed tobacco tax.
Borough staff now will draft an ordinance for the Assembly to consider at a later meeting.
The proposal calls for the borough to work with the City of Ketchikan on a tax that would be similar throughout the community. The suggested tax is $3 per pack of cigarettes, or 75 percent of the wholesale price on other tobacco products. Tobacco substitutes, including e-cigarettes, also would be taxed at a similar rate.
Assembly Members Glen Thompson, Mike Painter and Jim Van Horn opposed the measure, while John Harrington, Alan Bailey, Bill Rotecki and Todd Phillips voted in favor.
Bailey said he supports the proposed tobacco tax, because he believes it will help discourage people from taking up the habit.
“This is a simple question for me,” he said. “Can I make a decision that will help assist the lives of youth? Not a problem. You bet. Yes. And if that upsets some people who believe this is excessive, I can live with that.”
Painter argued that the tobacco tax is all about money, and has nothing to do with promoting health.
“People that are addicted to tobacco, whether it’s chewing tobacco, cigars, cigarettes, e-cigs, are an easy mark for you revenue hunters,” he said. “Call it what you want to, this, in my opinion, if it passes, this is extortion. Because the revenue is not going toward the problem.”
The tobacco tax would generate an estimated $1.2 million a year. The proposal calls for 15 percent of that, or about $180,000, to be designated for smoking cessation programs. The rest would be split between the City of Ketchikan and the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, based on population.
Earlier in the meeting, Thompson tried to amend the motion to put the issue in front of the voters. He said the public should have a direct say in a new tax.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us to give the folks a bite at the apple, because they’re going to look at it as a sales tax,” he said. “And they like to approve it when we pass taxes on them. And I trust the voters.”
That motion failed 3-4. Painter and Van Horn joined Thompson in voting yes.
Also Monday, the Assembly considered a proposal to legalize fireworks within the borough. The City of Ketchikan allows some fireworks, and the borough currently doesn’t allow any. Enforcement, though, is light.
There was public comment for and against that proposal. Van Abbott said he’d like fireworks to remain illegal, and for the borough to enforce that rule. Abbott said the residue from fireworks is dangerous, and could be getting into residents’ water systems.
“Twenty to 30 percent of the powders and the accelerants contained in these aerial shells and rockets does not ignite, and falls to the earth and more likely than not, onto our neighbors’ roofs,” he said.
Many residents in the borough use roof-catchment systems to collect drinking water. Abbot said the chemicals in fireworks include heavy metals that can harm children, especially.
Don Westlund, who proposed the motion for Assembly consideration, pointed out that fireworks are easily purchased through the Internet, and the borough doesn’t get any sales tax revenue that way.
There also was discussion of the effect of fireworks on animals, and Assembly members talked about how to better enforce the current ban. In the end, though, members referred the issue to the city-borough Cooperative Relations Committee for further discussion.