By JOE GELDHOF
Juneau’s local election voting concludes on Oct. 3. Various hot-button issues are being kicked round by the candidates for office this year, including housing, homelessness, and childcare and whether to build a new city hall.
A huge field of candidates are vying for election to the local assembly, seeking the opportunity to govern Alaska’s Capital City.
The overarching issue facing Juneau’s electorate is which candidates will genuinely address important issues like high housing costs, a declining population and diminished economic opportunity. Decisions by the existing City and Borough of Juneau Assembly have postponed difficult choices, increased spending without obvious benefit for the citizens, and ignored mandates by the electorate.
Whether Juneau voters decide to perpetuate the miserable decision-making practices of the past or elect Assembly candidates committed to positive change is what’s at stake this election cycle.
Several obvious examples of bad decision making by the current City and Borough Assembly underscore the need for change.
Juneau’s tried-and-true election procedures were recently changed by the Assembly to mandate mail-in voting. The Assembly authorized expenditure of more than $1 million to facilitate mail-in voting. The new system is more expensive, produces slower results, creates potential for ballot abuse, and discards the system of voting that encouraged civic and community engagement. Adoption of a system that produces slower results, is more expensive, and ditched long-standing procedures that encouraged active civic involvement is a system only a dysfunctional political system could produce.
The single biggest blunder advanced by the current Assembly is the decision to borrow big via bonds to build a new city hall. Last year, Juneau’s electorate rejected a ballot proposal to borrow funds to build a new city hall. There was no organized effort to turn down the bonding proposal for the new facility. The measure lost the old-fashioned way – on the merits.
Not content with the result, the Assembly placed a big bundle of tax revenues into an account designated for construction of their new city hall despite the expressed rejection of the voters. These are funds that could have been used for tax relief, facilitating housing construction or to benefit Juneau residents. The Assembly then designed a new ballot measure attempting to borrow funds and build the city hall.
Not only is the Assembly ignoring the will of the voters and plowing forward with the new city hall, the Assembly voted to appropriate funding to advocate for their borrowing proposal. Using the public’s tax dollars to reeducate the voters calls into question the judgment of the Assembly and has caused significant dissention.
The propaganda produced with public tax dollars ignores obvious real-world construction costs. The City and Borough of Juneau lacks hard numbers on the actual cost to build the new city hall and lacks a financial rate-lock for borrowing the funds to build the facility. The printed materials spread by the city using tax dollars lack clarity and fudge obvious financial factors. There is a strong likelihood that the actual cost to build the new city hall edifice will be substantially more than the estimates floated by CBJ in their promotional literature.
The attempt by the current Juneau Assembly to ram through a new city hall where the costs to build and finance are opaque is probably the central issue in Juneau this election cycle. There is a noticeable sense of discontent among the electorate, often as not focused on the city hall proposal.
Other issues are spurring voter discontent. The CBJ Assembly’s adoption of property assessments based on criteria disconnected from realistic market conditions has inflated property values and significantly increased taxes for many residential and commercial property owns. Not surprisingly, the increases on property values have generated more tax revenue to spend but harm homeowners, renters and commercial businesses. Add to these acts and errors, the propensity of the current Assembly to conduct the public’s business behind closed doors and it is no wonder the electorate is irritated and even angry.
How the election plays out in Juneau will be a good indication of how Juneau will fare in the future. Juneau’s economy is still weighted significantly towards government. But Juneau can no longer count on vast infusions of government revenue to sustain jobs and a vibrant economy. Diversification and expansion of other economic alternatives is obviously necessary if Juneau is to prosper.
What cannot continue is a mindset among local elected officials that funds will somehow magically continue to flow into city coffers from various sources, including the state and federal treasuries or from the local taxpayers.
Juneau’s Assembly needs change. Juneau’s citizens deserve elected officials who will demand better value from the tax dollars our community spends. We need to do more with what we have and possibly do better with less. That starts by saying no to a new city hall with unknown costs and uncertain financing charges.
Joe Geldhof is a lawyer in Juneau. He has held several positions that require administrative and financial skills. Joe is a District 1 candidate for the CBJ Assembly.