By ART CHANCE
Juneau is a nice place to live if you are among the upper levels of the local, state, and federal government and the people who deal with them.
It is an especially nice place to live if you’re among the self-anointed “in crowd” of old Juneau money, Democrat and Native royalty, and lobbyist and political money.
This crowd and the people closely associated with them have pretty much a monopoly on the million-dollar houses with a water view. Some of the old money goes back to the gold mining days when Juneau was the richest town in America and maybe in the world.
The rest of the rich and powerful got their money and power from knowing the right people and being in the right place at the right time. Harry Truman once said that the only way you can get rich in government is to be a crook, and that is pretty much true. I know or know of a few who got rich by being inside government, though that can be risky business, but I know or know of many more who got rich by having connections inside government.
Juneau is not a very nice place to live if you are a Republican elected or appointed official, an employee at the delivery of service level in government, or below the owner/manager/professional level of what little private sector there is in the capital city.
Compared to other urban areas in Alaska, and only in Alaska would a town of 30K people be considered urban, Juneau is breathtakingly expensive. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not monitor cost of living in Juneau. The Alaska Department of Labor does a market basket survey that is sometimes reliable but is subject to political influence. The State last did a comprehensive and somewhat objective survey of cost of living differentials within Alaska and between Alaska and Seattle in 1984.
The cold breath of the Capital move was still strong enough that the State concluded that there was no reason for a geographic differential for Juneau; the math was simple; if you paid a Geographic Differential for Juneau, it was easy to economically justify moving any position to Anchorage.
The State also concluded that there would be a negative differential between urban Alaska, including Juneau, and Seattle of 12.5%. The Seattle based marine highway unions knew better and had the power to force the State to agree to a 25% differential for any of their members who claimed to reside in Alaska, which mostly meant those who claimed to live in Juneau or Ketchikan.
The Public Employment Relations Act requires that any labor agreement include a cost of living differential between Alaska and Seattle. That is language from the early 1980s and was precipitated by the Hammond Administration’s attempts to rein in the cost of the ferry system. By the time I became director of labor relations in early 2003, using Seattle as a base had become untenable. In the early 2000s, Seattle was far more expensive than Anchorage or Fairbanks.
Since I had the power to do it and nobody knew enough to question me, I just made the base Western Washington, which is expensive enough, but not as expensive as Queen Anne Hill. I spent $100K on salary surveys but never could get a truly reliable number, but the old marine highway number of about 25% is pretty good for a Juneau differential.
I kept my office in Juneau, but only because the governor and the commissioner of Administration were there most of the time. Most of our actual work was in Anchorage and Fairbanks and we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on travel costs between Juneau and those cities. We were in Juneau for meetings, most of which were unnecessary or could have been done by phone or video. We all knew that moving the office to Anchorage would be at least a 25% pay raise and a savings of several hundred thousand dollars a year in travel costs.
Gov. Frank Murkowski was the last governor to insist that all of his commissioners maintain their primary office in Juneau other than the adjutant general, and somewhat, the commissioner of Public Safety. Governors Sarah Palin and Sean Parnell let division directors and above maintain an office wherever they chose. Most chose Anchorage.
Gov. Bill Walker made Bruce Botelho, former mayor of Juneau, his henchman to remove everyone who’d ever had a Republican thought from State government, but even Walker made little attempt to either hire the Juneau anointed ruling class or to return the runaway State employees to the People’s Republic.
Actually, the Republican Dunleavy Administration has a bit more of a political appointee presence in Juneau than had its recent predecessors. In sum, the only vestigial remains of the State Capital in Juneau are some of the Office of the Governor, some of the Department of Administration, and some of the finance and budget sections/divisions of operating departments that have to deal directly with Admin or OMB.
Oh, and they still have the star on the map and an old post office and a former federal office building that we call the Capitol. Except during the legislative session, Juneau is nothing more than a regional center for government.
They seem to think that star will be there forever.
But Juneau’s self-anointed in-crowd is, as always, totally lacking self-awareness. I read a Juneauite’s hoity-toity retort on a post on Juneau’s attempt to eliminate the cruise industry. He goes on and on about what a cultural mecca Juneau is.
Well, it is, for a town of 30,000 people, but only if you are affluent enough to afford tickets to Perseverance Theatre, dinner at Salt, and drinks after work at The Hangar or other watering holes in town.
If you’re a State Range 12 or 14, the typical delivery-of-service employee, those destinations are once a year, just for special occasions. Juneau can’t even support a McDonald’s downtown or chain restaurants in the Mendenhall Valley. Even Walmart couldn’t stay in business there.
My former hometown in Georgia has about a third of the population and about a third of the per capita income as Juneau and yet it has a thriving Walmart “Super Center.” Were it not for the vestigial remains of the upper levels of the Executive Branch, and the legislative session, downtown Juneau would be a ghost town between September and May. Ever been to Skagway in January? That would be downtown Juneau.
But Juneau’s clueless in-crowd wants to destroy the tourism economy that supports all the stuff they take for granted.
I’ll admit that at the public policy level I’m not a big fan of a tourism economy; it produces a few rich owners and a lot of poor and transient service workers; as a public policy matter, you need more than that or you become a tourism city in the Third World.
When I lived in Juneau, I saw the same ships in January in Puerto Vallarta that I saw in July in Juneau and even ran into people at bars and restaurants in Juneau who I’d seen in bars and restaurants in Puerto Vallarta. Those “cultural amenities” that the Juneau elite likes to tout are dependent for their survival not on government or the Juneau elite, but on tourism. I’ve never lived off money that my great-grandfather made, so I know what it is like to live in Alaska’s seasonal and “boom and bust” economy.
In the good times, you take money to the bank in a wheelbarrow; in the bad times you take money out of the bank in a wheelbarrow, and you hope that there is a little left over for you to start the next season.
I spent a quarter century in Juneau, most of it in the upper levels of state government. I lived well though I spent a lot of time on airplanes, in hotels, and hearing rooms. When I came home it took a few days to not reach for the phone to call room service when the alarm went off. I worked with people who I still cherish and I worked with people I simply hated; you have to be able to do that in government.
We loved our boat and the lifestyle that goes with it. But, if you don’t have a job or business that allows you to have amenities and travel a bit, Juneau is a dismal, dark place.
Now, the people who are living off money granddaddy made or off public employee retirements are trying to make it impossible for anyone else to tolerate living in Juneau. It isn’t unheard of; Haines did the same thing when it chased the tourism industry away, but going to Haines isn’t exactly on anybody’s bucket list. Fairbanks is a regional center for government and can be brutal in winter, but you can drive out or fly out at a somewhat reasonable price. You can fly around the world from anywhere else in the US for the price of a ticket from Juneau to Seattle or Portland, and if you’re going anywhere other than the major left coast cities, throw in a few hundred bucks for staying overnight in the People’s Republic of Seattle or Portland.
At bottom, if you don’t have a boat and have the money to travel a bit, or a job that pays for you to travel a bit, Juneau is pretty much unfit for human habitation. I guess the “in-crowd” just wants to keep their own company because a stroke of the governor’s pen or 21 and 11 in the legislature moves the Legislature and the upper levels of government out of Juneau.
The federal employees follow the government out other than the Coast Guard and maybe some law enforcement. Juneau can be cold, wet, dark, and lonely in January; check out Skagway in January some time.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.