From July 10 to July 31, fee shacks that collected parking and camping fees from dipnetters entering the Kenai River’s north and south beaches and municipal dock recorded 24,878 transactions, according to the 2015 dipnet report that Kenai administrators presented on Tuesday.
Users came to the fishery from 538 different zip codes. Fifty-four percent of those were from Anchorage, 13 percent from the Mat-Su Valley, 11 percent from Kenai, and 8 percent from Soldotna, with 5 percent from out of state or of unknown origin.
Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank said this year Kenai had netted much more data about the dipnetters than it had in previous years, estimating he had collected zip codes from 98 percent of the drivers who passed through the fee barrier. Eubank credited the wealth of data in part to new fee-collection software and a tighter configuration of fee-collection shacks at the main north beach access point.
In 2014 the city placed one fee shack at the broad entrance to the north beach parking lot at the end of South Spruce Street. Eubank said many dipnetters bypassed this shack, sometimes by driving down Spruce Street in the opposite lane. This year Kenai added a second fee shack at the site and moved both to the main road close to Spruce Street’s intersection with the Kenai Spur Highway, near the Kenai Little League Field.
Eubank said all drivers who passed the fee barrier were asked to voluntarily provide three pieces of information: a cell phone number, the zip code they came from, and the number of participants they brought. License plate numbers were also collected.
“The information we have this year is pretty solid information on participant counts, zip codes all of that,” Eubank said, “because you couldn’t really get past the shacks without giving us that information.”
Eubank said the information would be valuable to inform future dipnet policy.
“Frankly, the biggest driving force for putting our new system in place was better cash control, but as a by-product of that was we were able to generate some more data, to answer some questions for council, so they can make more informed decisions,” Eubank said in an interview after the dipnet report worksession.
While the new arrangement on Spruce Street was the fishery’s one major administrative change, the only fee change was at the city dock, where the cost of parking and dock use went from $25 to $35, while fees for just parking went from $15 to $20. Season passes, which in 2014 had cost $150 and had allowed unlimited launches during dipnet season, were also eliminated in this year’s fishery. The city dock is free to non-commercial users at other times of the year.
Eubank said the new dock fees had a significant impact on this year’s fishery.
“Our participant counts were down overall, but our revenues still were up, and that’s because of fee schedule changes at the dock, primarily,” Eubank said.
Although the fishery’s total revenue dropped from last year’s total of $642,671, to an estimated $621,603 this year, much of the decrease came from a $43,327 reduction in state grant money given to Kenai for the fishery. Money collected at the dock had increased by $29,717, and fees collected from the north beach increased by $7,642. At the south beach, however, fee revenue had dropped by $15,170.
Eubank speculated that many dipnetters who may have gone to Kenai’s south beach in the past were now going to the Kasilof River, saying the relative remoteness of the two sites may draw a differently-equipped group of dipnetters than the more accessible north beach.
“You can bring your station-wagon down to north beach, drag your cooler and your net down there and go fishing,” Eubank said. “Kasilof, it’s a walk from where you access the beach down to where you fish. Just like on south beach. When you access the beach on south beach, you’re three quarters of a mile from where you can start fishing. And it’s all four-wheel drive area.”
In order to separate dipnet-related finances from other city operations, Kenai began putting revenue from the fishery into a dedicated fund created in 2013, which after the 2014 fishery had a balance $67,662. This year the fund’s balance saw a much larger increase — to a projected balance of $161,342 — after Kenai captured a revenue of $572,517 from an expenditure of $485,977.
Kenai City manager Rick Koch said the dipnet fund is capital for future dipnet projects.
“Why $161,000 of capital reserves?” Koch said. “We have a number of capital expenditures that will take place in the future… (they) are not fully defined yet, but we know they will occur.”
City departments submitted in this year’s report a list of 13 recommended dipnet-related purchases totalling $1.3 million. These included security cameras, tractors, a hydraulic rake, permitting for a mooring buoy in the Kenai River, and a $500,000 purchase of property for increased camping and parking space on the north beach. Aside from the property purchase, the most expensive potential projects involve work on the city’s dock: $225,000 for design and construction of a boat ramp extension; $160,000 to replace a boat-ramp float; and $250,000 to dredge near the ramp.
Koch said city funds would likely be needed for these projects.
“I think the opportunity to get state dollars, through grants that we’ve got really successfully in the past — that time has come and gone,” Koch said. “We are not going to see state appropriations supporting this, or most capital requests. So the council agreed on the creation of making this a fund for things such as this.”
In addition to new capital expenses, Koch said that increased maintenance costs of aging dipnet-related assets — many purchased originally with state grant money — will also be future expenses.
“I don’t know if that necessarily convinces people that the city of Kenai isn’t just making money hand over fist with the fishery, but there are real demonstrable needs coming down the pipe for us to provide the same management, the same services, that we now have,” Koch said.
Kenai City Council member Mike Boyle, one of the four council members present at the worksession (the others were Brian Gabriel, Bob Molloy, and Henry Knackstedt), said some of the projects did not necessarily appear to be dipnet-related.
“Some of it looks to me like stuff we have to do whether we have a dipnet fishery or not,” Boyle said, citing the dredging near the boat launch as an example. “It’s pretty hard to convince the general public that we’re not just making money out there, but this makes it look like we’re using the dipnet money to support expenses that we have. That’s my concern.”
Koch said the dredging in the report’s list of recommended capital projects was a small part of what the city’s waterfront required, and this other dredging was excluded from the report for not being directly dipnet-related.
“It’s probably well over a half-million dollar project for us to dredge everything we need to dredge. I’m looking at a component of that that would go to this fishery,” Koch said. “The majority of the use of the four boat launch ramps that we have is clearly, unequivocally because of the (personal-use) fishery.”
Among the transactions recorded in this year’s report were 4,044 “drop-offs” — in which vehicles approach the beach to drop off dipnetters, but do not park in the fee area. According to the report, 25 percent of drop-offs came from Kenai, 19 percent from Soldotna, and 56 percent from other locations. Although Kenai doesn’t charge a fee for drop-offs, it does issue a free drop-off permit.
Eubank cited these numbers in support of a recommendation given by Kenai administrators to city council in the report: to add a $10 daily drop-off fee to future fisheries. He said that although dropped-off dipnetters aren’t taking up parking space, they are consuming other city resources by using toilets, creating garbage and fish-waste that must be raked up, and requiring public-safety supervision.
Boyle said he wouldn’t support drop-off fees. Molloy said he would be “open to that discussion,” but suggested that $10 was too high, comparing it to parking at the Kenai airport, where a vehicle under 4,000 pounds can be parked for over 4 hours for $5. Knackstedt and Gabriel also said they would consider a drop-off pass, though Knackstedt thought $10 “may not be the number.”
Two Kenai residents spoke to the council members and administrators at the dipnet report presentation: Michael Preston, who spoke on the effectiveness of the no-wake zone at the river mouth, and Chuck Gallien, who requested that season dock passes return.
Responding to Gallien, Eubank used new data collected this year. He first pointed out that seasonal pass holders would have to use their $150 passes for five launches — which would otherwise cost $35 with parking — before breaking even. He also said the dock fee shacks had admitted 2,023 vehicles in the 2015 fishery.
“So out of those 2,023 vehicles, 100 of them had four or more transactions,” Eubank said. “So about 5 percent of the total fishery participants would have benefited from a season pass. Only 19 of those vehicles with four or more transactions were from Kenai, which represents less than 1 percent of the unique vehicles. Bringing back season passes certainly wouldn’t benefit Kenai residents substantially.”
Gallien, who said he was on a fixed income, identified himself as one who would benefit.
“I’m one of those one-percenters that go out there more than five times, and I go out there in dipnetting season — sometimes I go dipnetting, but sometimes I’m just out there,” Gallien said. “It’s a financial burden to me. I’m only one guy out here, but that’s my song, that’s my story. … I can swing the $150, but I can’t swing going out there ten days during the dipnetting season.”
Boyle and Molloy said they would have no objections to returning the season pass. Gabriel and Knackstedt remained undetermined, Knackstedt saying he would “have to look at the numbers.” Koch said he did not recommend re-instituting a season pass.
“I was contacted by a few people who expressed their displeasure with the removal of the season pass,” Koch said. “It was interesting that the reason given to me on those occasions was they have a lot of visitors who come from Anchorage, and they didn’t want to have to pay every time they took people out who came down from Anchorage. … My recommendation is not to change the fee structure at the docks.”
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.