After nearly four hours of discussion during its April 13 meeting, Bethel City Council moved to postpone the vote on the proposed sugar-sweetened beverage excise tax until its next regular meeting.
You may have seen the ads and mailers around town or on Facebook either for or against the proposed sugar-sweetened beverage tax, but what is it?
The proposed tax would be applied to sugar-sweetened beverages in Bethel. The proposal would add a 1-cent-per-ounce tax to soda pop and other sugar-sweetened beverages. Funds generated from the tax would be applied to specific projects sponsored by Bethel’s Parks, Recreation, Aquatic Health, and Safety Center Committee. Such projects could include a new community gym, fortified boardwalks, or better-tasting city water.
In the April 13 meeting, proponents and opponents came out in droves to share their thoughts on the matter. Proponents of the tax underscored that it is an excise tax rather than a sales tax, meaning that distributors of the beverages don’t have to pass the tax along to their retailers and consumers. Opponents said that it was naive to think that a business would absorb the fiscal burden of the tax without charging customers more. Those advocating for the tax also said that they want it to discourage people from purchasing sugar-sweetened beverages, citing soda pop as a leading cause of disproportionately high ill health effects in the Y-K Delta, including diabetes and extending to severe dental issues.
Former Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation Dentist Mark Reynolds, who is for the tax, provided City Clerk Lori Strickler with the following written testimony on the rates of tooth decay caused by sugar in the Y-K Delta: “Children in the Y-K Delta consume about 16 times the average amount of sugar, and have about 14 times the amount of tooth decay. In 2015, I removed 435 teeth at YKHC. In 2016 I removed 470 teeth. In comparison in my six months time working in Fairbanks, I removed 103 teeth. On average, I remove more than two times as many teeth at YKHC than I do [in Fairbanks],” said Strickler, on behalf of Reynolds.
But Bethel resident Ana Hoffman, who opposes the tax, said that the picture of poor dental health in the Y-K Delta is caused by more complicated factors than just sugary drinks.
“There are other contributing factors that should be considered as well. Having access to dental care is a critical factor for decades. Getting a dental appointment in Bethel was like winning the lottery. In the villages, preventative dental care is virtually nonexistent,” testified Hoffman. "Another important factor is that many people still drink rainwater or melted ice here, while other Americans have easy access to fluoridated municipal water. The ADA states fluoride in the drinking water helps to prevent 25% of tooth decay,” she added.
Bethel residents do have access to fluoridated water, though in some subdivisions, older infrastructure causes piped water to run brown and have an abnormal taste. Some say that the poor-tasting water causes people to choose sugar-sweetened beverages instead.
Proponents of the tax are glad that the funds would go towards a community gym, but opponents say that the city is overtaxed already. Some opponents of the proposed tax want it to go to a public vote, like Cezary Macynski.
“I'm certainly against that ordinance. Let the people decide what they want. Why do we not wait to put down the ballots on that?” asked Macynski.
This is the third time that the tax has been on the Bethel City Council’s agenda in some form over the past year. The last time that it was up for discussion, back in December, council members recommended that the Parks Committee rethink some aspects of the proposed tax. In last night’s meeting, the Parks Committee brought forth five suggested amendments to clarify and change the tax. Three amendments were ultimately adopted into the proposal, including an amendment that clarified what constitutes a sugar-sweetened beverage, one that sets the tax for powdered drinks at 0.0025 cents per ounce of product, and an amendment that adds statements specifying why the council would adopt this ordinance.
During discussion, members tended to voice opposition to the tax, even though they adopted several of the recommended amendments. Councilmember Alyssa Leary clarified her position on passing the amendments.
“Even though I'm not supportive of this ordinance as a whole, but I don't have control over how everyone else is going to vote. So if this might go forward, I think we need to make it the best we can,” said Leary.
Leary added that she would like the tax to be voted on by the public.
“That is ultimately what I would like to see. Even if the seven of us agreed, I still don't think that's right. So I would like to do a vote of the public, not the council,” she said.
Legally speaking, a public vote would complicate the current structure of the ordinance. City Attorney Elizabeth "Libby" Bakalar pointed to a court decision that says that a sales tax requires a public vote, but not an excise tax.
“The Supreme Court held specifically that this statute does not include excise taxes. So I would strongly advise against presenting an excise tax to the voters. However, if this were restructured as a sales tax, then it would have to go to the voters. So that would be my advice,” said Bakalar.
At the end of the discussion, the council took the recommendation of City Clerk Strickler to table the public hearing and reintroduce the now significantly amended ordinance in the next regular meeting on April 27. Strickler has said that she expects the rewritten proposal to be available on the City of Bethel’s website by April 22.