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Sugary Beverage Tax Up For Public Hearing Again In Bethel City Council Meeting

Christine Trudeau

On April 27, Bethel City Council will consider a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The proposal would add a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on all liquid sugar-sweetened beverages sold in Bethel. The revenue from the tax would be kept in a special interest-bearing account that would only be used for Parks and Recreation purposes.


The tax is an excise tax, rather than a sales tax, meaning that it would be applied to the distributor, who could then pass on the added cost to the consumer. 


But proponents of the tax point out that beverage distributors don’t have to pass on the tax. If they do, they say that they hope the added cost deters residents from purchasing sugary beverages. Proponents cite studies that blame the high rates of tooth decay in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on sugar-sweetened drinks. The ordinance also cites a scientific study that says Alaska Natives are experiencing a more rapid rate of diabetes increase than other Native American groups.


Although the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation has said that it does not have an official stance on the tax, it has been releasing pro-water drinking sponsored ads on social media. And every YKHC doctor or dentist who has spoken on the tax during city council meetings supports it. Like Chief of Staff Dr. Ellen Hodges, who said that she was speaking as a private citizen. 


"I'm an evidence based person, and the evidence shows that in communities that have adopted these taxes on these sugar sweetened beverages, people drink them less. And when you drink less of these beverages, you have fewer health problems," she said.


Opponents of the tax, like Swanson’s general manager David Hicks, said that the opinions of the proponents are paradoxical.


"On one hand, you say you're going to institute a excise tax, and then that financial penalty is going to reduce consumption. But out of the other side of your mouth, you say that it was never your intention that this excise tax be passed on to the consumer," said Hicks.


But even if the tax doesn’t get passed off to the consumer, the committee that sponsored the ordinance will still receive revenue for public health-related projects such as community gyms, parks, and trails. Bethel Planning Commission member Shadi Rabi is for that. 


"If it is passed off on the consumer from the organization, I am still in support. If we could use this, this increased money to benefit the community in some capacity, I would love to see that," said Rabi.


But opponents say that the community is already overtaxed, and should find other revenue streams for public projects. The Orutsararmiut Native Council in Bethel has declared its opposition to the tax.


"In some ways, we are the poorest, probably in the state. And we, you know, we just can't afford another tax," said Orutsararmiut Native Council Tribal Chairman Henry Hunter, who added that the vote should be put to the people. "They're the ones that are going to be affected. Let them decide if they want that tax."


City Attorney Elizabeth "Libby" Bakalar said that if the ordinance were brought to public vote, it would have to be rewritten as a sales tax. 


The tax has already come up for council discussion twice before, and it has been tabled both times. Some council members, like Rose “Sugar” Henderson, are getting weary.


"At this point, I'm, I'm really tired of hearing about this ordinance. And I really want to, personally, I want to get it over with one way or the other," said Henderson.


But other council members want to save the discussion for another time. Councilmember Conrad "CJ" McCormick wanted to postpone the discussion until folks could come to council chambers to share their opinions in person.


"There are many individuals in this community who will be very affected by this one way or another if it passes or fails, who might not have the means to participate in a Zoom call," said McCormick.


Also in the April 27 meeting, Bethel City Council will consider a measure that’s meant to ease the financial burden on local taxi companies. If passed, it would reimburse Bethel's cab drivers for half the cost of their license for each month they didn’t operate during the pandemic. 


Another item up for discussion is a memorandum that would authorize the Bethel Police Department to purchase 25 new tasers for the 16 officers in the department. Police Chief Richard Simmons said that five new police department positions could be added next year. The tasers would cost $60,000, and Simmons said that the new tasers would better penetrate winter clothing.