By WIN GRUENING
With the gradual re-opening of travel in July, my wife and I were finally able to visit our son and his family in London. They had moved there in February 2020, just before the country was locked down.
The U. K. pandemic requirements we faced were rigorous. Upon our arrival, we went into quarantine for a week at their house. During quarantine, we were called almost every day by the National Health Service to ensure we were following health guidelines. We underwent a total of five mandated Covid tests (at about $60 each) before our trip home. Despite the rising number of Delta variant virus cases, two days after our quarantine ended, the U. K. government dropped the quarantine requirement for vaccinated U. S. visitors.
The good news was that, once out of quarantine, we had an opportunity to visit all the sights in London. With fewer people traveling, public transportation was easy, and lines were short or non-existent. We felt welcomed by the British people after the economic havoc created by the pandemic.
Upon our return to Juneau, after being gone about a month, we noticed a few changes.
The most obvious difference was the presence of two cruise ships docked downtown. After almost two years of absence, they were a welcome sight. On the flip side, visitor numbers throughout the state will still be well below previous year’s levels but whatever economic activity is created will still be a relief for many of our state’s visitor related businesses.
Good news regarding recent City and Borough of Juneau Assembly actions include efforts to tackle the growing problem with our landfill have finally commenced. Complaints about the odor, air quality, and long-term sustainability of our solid waste stream have been mounting for years. One wonders whether creating yet another task force is the solution or if that just delays action. Nevertheless, it is a much needed first step and long overdue.
Another bright spot is that Juneau was recently selected to host the first Ironman triathlon in Alaska next August. This will bring an influx of independent travelers to the Capital City and our region as well as a corresponding economic boost to the hospitality industry. Congratulations and thanks to Travel Juneau for helping make this happen.
The not-so-good news is the Assembly’s latest action to make permanent Vote by Mail for municipal elections. First suggested as a temporary measure last year because of pandemic protocols, it is now being moved forward with minimal public process up to now.
Last year, fewer than half of the 28,000 VBM ballots were returned despite spending almost double the cost of a regular election. Now the Assembly proposes spending $700,000 to remodel a city-owned warehouse to count ballots.
By the city’s own estimates, the first-year start-up costs for Vote by Mail (including renovation costs) would total over $1 million. Then, the ongoing operational costs of conducting the election could exceed $200,000 per year, triple the cost of a conventional election where voters could choose to vote in person or request an absentee ballot. With the economy still recovering and so many needs and uncertainties on the horizon, does it make sense to spend tax dollars on this now, if ever?
On another front, the long-awaited census figures are out. In the last 10 years, MatSu’s population grew a robust 20.3% compared to Juneau’s anemic 3.1%. While Juneau can celebrate the good news that it has “gained” population since 2010, the bad news is that interim population estimates from the Alaska Department of Labor indicate that Juneau has slowly been losing population since 2015.
This negative population trend should concern the CBJ Assembly, especially as they amass an ever-expanding list of projects that their constituents must fund. Whether through debt or increased taxes, if this course continues, a diminishing number of taxpayers will be burdened by its elected officials’ spending choices.
Despite approving a series of deficit budgets requiring dipping into savings, the CBJ Assembly is still considering a new city hall, the previously mentioned vote counting center, and an enlarged convention/arts and cultural center – all projects with hefty price tags.
Moving forward, CBJ elected leaders should take a serious and cautious approach to new discretionary expenditures. Perhaps they can task the Juneau Economic Development Council (whose CBJ-funded mission it is) to develop significant new initiatives to grow the economy.
The good news we need to hear soon is that we have a balanced budget, and our fiscal house is in order.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening began writing op-eds for local and statewide media. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations and currently serves on the board of the Alaska Policy Forum.