Ketchikan’s cruise ship berths sit empty in this file photo. (KRBD file photo by Leila Kheiry)

Ketchikan’s City Council returned to a familiar topic Monday: How to extract money for infrastructure and other community needs from the city-owned port.


The problem for the city is a provision of the U.S. Constitution.

“Article one, section 10, clause three — we’re not going to change the Tonnage Clause,” City Council Member Mark Flora said at Monday’s meeting.

The Constitution’s Tonnage Clause requires that money collected from ships visiting ports must be spent on things that directly benefit the ships themselves. That means head taxes and dockage fees can pay for longshoremen and mooring dolphins, but not firefighters or garbage collectors.

“We literally have rules of the financial model that we operate from as a community from the year 1787 — before surface water passage of humans for pleasure had been conceived,” Flora said. “I don’t believe that’s in the best interest of the community.”

Last year, two private port companies’ offered proposals to take over the day-to-day management of Ketchikan’s city-owned downtown cruise ship berths. The operators would have collected fees from docking cruise ships and paid rent to the city. That, so the theory goes, would have allowed the city to spend port money on things like water pipes and police officers — not to mention long-overdue port maintenance and upgrades.

The council at the time voted down the proposals 4-3 after strong public pushback. Many residents said they were concerned that hiring a private port operator would mean giving up control of the city-owned docks. Flora, along with Council Members Janalee Gage and Dave Kiffer, who’s now Ketchikan’s mayor, were the three votes against ending the search for a private operator. Council Member Abby Bradberry voted to nix the proposals along with fellow Council Members Riley Gass and Judy Zenge.

Now, the city is searching for new ways to leverage its port to finance overdue infrastructure projects and maintenance.

At Monday’s meeting, Bradberry suggested reaching out to individual cruise lines to see if they’d be willing to help the city with its needs.

“I guess my intention was to start the conversation on what we need as a community monetarily, using the fees for necessities, what is their long term plan,” Bradberry said.

Gass and Council Member Jai Mahtani made similar suggestions.

Acting City Manager Lacey Simpson said the city was already in talks with Cruise Lines International Association. She said the industry group is currently working on a 10-year projection of the port’s needs. In an email, Simpson said the city and the cruise line group would reconvene at a later date to determine how the projects could be funded.

“It doesn’t differ a whole lot from the conversation we’ve already started with CLIA as a whole. We can certainly break it apart. I’m just not sure what the intended result will be. But we can start that conversation and see where it goes,” Simpson said.

Kiffer suggested that the operators might be willing to finance port upgrades, for instance, but it would come with a price.

“That’s gonna cost control. There are lines out there tomorrow who would fix, who would extend Berth 1 — if we gave them preferential berthing,” Kiffer said.

Flora, meanwhile, suggested that the current system meant the city was already not the master of its own fate.

“If you don’t control the money, you’re not in control,” Flora said.

In an informal poll, a majority of the council directed the manager to reach out to individual cruise lines to discuss funding community needs. Those meetings likely won’t happen until after the city’s end-of-year budget meetings, the mayor said.

In other business, Bradberry and a majority of the council directed the manager to sketch out a job description for a proposed new city tourism manager for the council’s mid-December meeting. The potential new position would focus on bringing more visitors into the community.

Disclosure: City Council Member Jai Mahtani is a member of KRBD’s nonprofit board of directors, which does not direct news coverage.