Bethel Metropolis Council Postpones Vote On Controversial Sugary Beverage Tax

The controversial sugary beverage tax prompted hours of discussion by Bethel residents, advocacy organizations, and city council members in last night’s meeting. The council voted to introduce the ordinance, but tabled the public hearing and final vote until April 2021.

If adopted, the ordinance would add a 1-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugary drinks. That would add $1.44 to the cost of a 12-pack of soda, to be paid by the distributor.

Residents who support the tax said that it could reduce the consumption of sugary beverages and the adverse health outcomes that come with it. Bethel Dentist Tucker Burnett cited a 2008 study that found that young children in the Y-K Delta have five times more tooth decay, fillings, and missing teeth than the national average. “And I’m here to tell you that the number one cause, absolutely, is sugary drinks,” said Burnett in the meeting.

Anchorage-based dietician Luz Smeenk said that a study showed that after a sugary beverage tax was passed in Berkeley, California, people drank half the soda that they did before the tax.

Supporters of the tax also said that it would raise money for recreational activities in Bethel. Revenue generated from the tax would be used for projects like balancing the budget of the Y-K Fitness Center, building a gymnasium, and improving parks and trails.

Many supporters of the tax, like Amber Jones, stressed that it would be an excise tax, not a sales tax. “Which means it’s taxes on the distributor of sugar sweetened beverages, not on the people buying them,” argued Jones. “They have every power to absorb the cost of this tax.”

Opponents of the tax, like the manager of Swanson’s grocery store, David Hicks, said that it is unrealistic to expect businesses to not pass this tax on to the consumer.

“Again, these are passed through taxes. Swanson’s, or AC, or the manufacturer of Kool Aid and Tang are not going to bear an additional $21.76 on a canister of Tang,” said Hicks.

The proposed tax would apply to powders and syrups that are mixed with water to create sugary beverages. Powders or syrups would be taxed at 1-cent-per-ounce of the resulting beverage.

Former Mayor Rick Robb was also opposed to the tax, saying that the city is already in good financial shape without the revenue.

“Ultimately, the city does not need the money. We, year after year after year, the city has operated in the black, bringing in more tax revenue that is spent,” said Robb.

Many opponents of the tax said it was something that ought to be voted on by the people.

The city council is currently leaning against the tax. Council members Sugar “Rose” Henderson, Alyssa Leary, and Perry Barr were all opposed to the tax. Mayor Michelle DeWitt is in favor of it. It was unclear from the meeting where Vice-Mayor Haley Hanson and council members Mark Springer and Conrad “CJ” McCormick stand.

Before postponing a final vote on the tax, council members struck down an amendment that would have doubled the tax to 2-cents-per-ounce.

Bethel City Council will revisit the sugary beverage tax at its April 13 meeting. Council members said that would give residents more time to discuss the proposed tax.