City of Ketchikan Mayor Lew Williams III is finishing up his last term as mayor. He told a Chamber of Commerce audience this week that after more than nine years in the job, he doesn’t plan to seek re-election.
With three terms nearly completed, Williams has given his annual State of the City address multiple times. He jokes that he started the tradition because it was a way to make people listen to him.
“I like to talk and nobody likes to listen. I get a captive crowd and you have to listen to me babble for a while,” he said. “I enjoy doing these speeches, and it’s always good to talk to everybody and let you know what we’re doing. Every time I’ve come here I’ve told you that the state of the city is good.”
And, Williams said, the state of the city still is good. Although, he added, he hasn’t been as active in his role as mayor for the past nine months. Williams was diagnosed with stage-4 colon cancer and has been going through aggressive treatment.
“Six chemos, two operations and at the end of November they told me I was cancer-free,” he said, to applause from the audience. “So instead of sending me home, he said, ‘Let’s do six more chemos, just to make sure.’ Last Friday, I was disconnected from my last chemo, thank goodness. I go down on Monday and they’re going to tell me if I’m still cancer free.”
Williams said he’s thankful for the service available at the local hospital, as well as support he’s had from family, friends and community members. He said he actually gained weight during chemo because his wife made him eat.
Williams said while he was doing all that, the Ketchikan City Council was taking care of city business. He said one of the biggest and most important projects for the community’s continued economic health is upgrading the port so it can handle new mega cruise ships.
The council has chosen an option that allows for a mega ship at Berth 1, and a normal-size ship at Berth 2. The city’s Berth 3 already can handle some of the bigger ships, such as the Norwegian Bliss, which is due to arrive this season.
The city also is negotiating with Ketchikan Dock Co. on plans to expand Berth 4, which the city leases from the private company.
Williams said the cruise industry is vital to Ketchikan.
“I can’t express enough how important it is to this community,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘What do they bring to us? They got all the crowds.’ But the sales tax that they bring to this community is just amazing. We could have just saved that money and had piles of money in our bank account.”
Instead, Williams said, the city uses sales tax revenue to help keep the property tax rate low.
He said the port expansion project is expected to cost around $37 million. That would come from bonds, which will be put on the ballot for voter approval. Williams said those bonds will be paid for through the city’s cruise ship head tax fees, so local residents will not bear the cost.
Uplands improvements to help mitigate the effect of more people coming on those cruise ships also are in the works.
“Unfortunately, the money for the uplands plans, we don’t have,” he said. “We have $6 million to blast that rock out there by Berth 1 so the ships can maneuver better. I was thinking we should have some kind of lottery to sell tickets and see who gets to push the plunger.”
The rock is a pinnacle in the Tongass Narrows that already is a navigation concern. With larger ships, it’s an even bigger concern, so the city is working on plans to remove it.
Williams also talked about road work in the downtown area. An Alaska Department of Transportation project to improve Front, Mill and Stedman streets has started, creating some detours on the heavily used state-owned road.
That project begins with sidewalk improvements, followed by repaving of the road itself. It’s anticipated to last through next year.
“Once that’s all done, you guys are gonna go, ‘Oh, great! We can drive through town again.’ I hate to tell you – well, I’m happy to tell you – is that then the state in 2020 is going to go from the tunnel to Hoadley Creek out to the hospital, redo sidewalks and pave,” he said.
The City of Ketchikan also has plans to fix its own streets. Williams said the city budget includes about $600,000 for street work. That includes some paving, patching and filling potholes.
“The other thing that’s coming up that’s sort of new is: I don’t know if you got your assessments, but I got mine,” he said. “My house went up $10,000; the Daily News went up $12,000; my friend’s house went up $18,000 in assessments.”
Williams is co-owner of the Ketchikan Daily News.
When assessments go up, people pay more property tax even if the rate itself remains the same. Williams said he plans to ask the Ketchikan City Council to consider lowering the city’s property tax rate to help offset that added expense for city residents.
The city’s property tax rate is 6.7 mills. The Ketchikan Gateway Borough has a 5-mill areawide property tax. City residents pay both city and borough taxes.
Williams said that while he’s not seeking re-election this year, he has enjoyed his time as mayor and before that as a longtime member of the Ketchikan City Council.
“I love local government. It comes in the family,” he said. “My grandfather was the mayor of Wrangell for 18 years. My father was the mayor of Petersburg. All they did was talk about local politics, and it just got my interest.”
Williams said his favorite part of serving in local government has been talking to everyone and hearing their ideas.