Opinions are flying back and forth in Juneau, with differing sides of a contentious spending proposal being debated in the local newspaper and on talk radio.
Juneau voters will decide — once again — if they want to pay for a new City Hall.
The current City Hall has been allowed to deteriorate and become unsightly, and some say that has been part of the master plan to convince taxpayers to pay for a spendy new building for city offices.
There’s a lot of anger at city government in Juneau right now, even more so than when the city removed the senior sales tax exemption in 2015. The discontent is widespread and deep this time.
The City and Borough of Juneau asked voters last year to approve spending on a new city hall. Voters declined the offer.
In June of this year, the Juneau Assembly voted unanimously to spend $50,000 to convince voters again to approve a $27 million bond issue, which would only partially fund the new city hall.
This, after the Assembly just approved the largest municipal operating budget in the history of Juneau.
The sides have lined up, with mostly city officials pushing hard in favor of the new building and saying it’s better to own a building than to rent. But the city leaders have offended more than a few voters by using taxpayer money to convince those same taxpayers to cough up even more money.
The new city hall is identical to the one that voters turned down just a year ago, but costs are probably not the same. Like everything else, project costs are subject to inflation, and the interest rate has doubled since last year, when voters last voted on this project.
But the city is using the same numbers, as if cost of borrowing hasn’t increased and the cost of materials and labor are static.
The Assembly already appropriated $16.3 million so that it could lower the bond amount requested of voters to $27 million.
Making it worse, Juneau’s population is flat, and school enrollment is down, which is why some voters don’t want to take the risk of bonding.
Some of the best financial analysis done on the new city hall was offered by Bruce Abel, who wrote, “City management has been clear; the existing City Hall needs $14 million of upgrades. Period. And, no matter what the electorate decides, that fact won’t change. However, there’s a missing piece to the CBJ’s argument. If funding the new City Hall ballot measure gains voter approval, the existing building will still need to be repaired. Where’s the funding proposal for that and why isn’t the manager’s office and Assembly including that information as part of their educating the public campaign?”
Abel continued, “What we have is a City Hall building that’s been so poorly maintained it is unsellable in its current condition and unaffordable if improved. That is, unless the CBJ sells the building at a considerable loss. I doubt this critical point has been missed by city management. So will the existing City Hall become the next Mt. Jumbo Gym? Or is there another plan for the building we don’t know?”
Across the street from the existing City Hall is the Sealaska building which is much larger and has been impeccably maintained, Abel wrote. It is assessed at $6.9 million.
“Our city leaders tell us our new assessments are now accurate and unimpeachable. Therefore, if you wanted to buy the existing City Hall building, which we’re told is worth $4 million, and the building needs $14 million in repairs and upgrades, then the actual cost to an investor, before the existing City Hall building can be occupied, is $18 million. What investor would do that? The numbers don’t add up. Juneau taxpayers are either going to spend $14 million, or $55 million, which is the combined cost of repairs and cost to build new. In the future, will Juneau voters be asked to float a bond to repair the existing building for some unspecified CBJ use?”
On the other hand, if voters turn down the new city hall for a second time, the Assembly will have $16 million they can use to repair the existing city hall, with no additional taxes or mill rate increases, he said.
“The Goldbelt building has 24,000 square feet of vacant space available which can be used to house displaced city staff while repairs and upgrades are under way. And thanks to the Assembly, we even have an extra $2 million to cover temporary relocation costs as the existing City Hall is repaired, modernized and refitted. That math actually works,” Abel wrote.
The Juneau election is by mail and ends on Oct. 3. Between now and then, the voters in Juneau appear to be up in arms and voting like their pocketbooks depend on it.