Ketchikan Gateway Borough mayor fights for local funding from feds

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough mayor is part of a delegation to Washington D.C. And he’s there to press Congress to pony up millions of dollars in funding lost by having Tongass National Forest in the borough’s back yard.

A view of Ketchikan from the top of the Edmonds Street stairs. (Photo credit State of Alaska)

Sixty years after statehood Uncle Sam is still the largest landowner in Alaska. All that national forest and interior land is great for hunting, fishing, resource development and recreation. But if you’re a local government, it’s tough because the feds don’t pay property taxes. At least not in the ordinary sense. But they do pay something.

“These are federal payments to local governments to help offset losses in property taxes,” said Nils Andreassen of the Alaska Municipal League.

He’s talking about “payment in lieu of taxes” that Congress set up to make up the difference.

“Not having those lands be taxable means that there’s less revenue available to provide essential services to Alaskans,” Andreassen said.

Now in Ketchikan this is even more severe. That’s because much of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough is in Tongass National Forest and Misty Fjords National Monument. Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor David Landis says when you add it up the feds’ holdings, they make up about 98 percent of the borough’s land area.

The federal government’s payments to Ketchikan aren’t chump change. Last year, it was about $1.2 million dollars.

It varies around the state. Local governments on Prince of Wales Island got a little over a million dollars. The City and Borough of Juneau got about $2.3 million. Add it all up and it’s about $31 million across Alaska.

But every year — or every couple of years — the program needs to be reauthorized. That means local leaders have to travel to Washington and pitch the program to Congress. And there’s always a little uncertainty.

“It’s called discretionary — that means they can pay it, or they maybe won’t,” Landis said.

Andreassen says that makes it hard for cities and boroughs to plan. He and Landis would like to see Congress take a longer-term approach.

“The push for making this a mandatory payment is to reduce uncertainty at the local level,” Andreassen said.

If it’s mandatory, that means it’s outside of the normal annual budget process. Borough leaders won’t have to make the trek to Washington every year to remind lawmakers to reauthorize the program. There won’t be a danger that one day, the payments disappear.

Landis says he wants to see lawmakers from Alaska take up the issue. Senator Lisa Murkowski didn’t return an interview request, but has called these payments “essential to our communities” in the past.

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