By WIN GRUENING
A recent front-page article in the Juneau Empire caught my attention. It was titled “Southeast Alaska Food Bank asks for help in the face of hard times”. The article described the large increase in Juneau residents seeking food assistance over the past six months. Facing longer lines of people, the Food Bank is running out of supplies before everyone is served. Contributing to this situation is the general supply chain slowdown along with higher food costs due to inflation that have impacted everyone’s buying power.
Understandably, the Food Bank is asking everyone for help so that people won’t go hungry.
As the Food Bank has been forced to raise their prices, its traditional partners, comprised of other non-profits and church groups, are also under increased economic pressure.
Some of this may have been inevitable due to Covid, but it was also predictable, and stands in sharp contrast to some of the priorities embraced by the local Assembly.
Assembly members and city staff seem to be more preoccupied with justifying spending an estimated $42 million on new city offices rather than understanding what is happening in Juneau’s lagging economy. There are lots of reasons to build new offices, they say. First, it will save money, they say. Second, it’s being touted as an investment in democracy and the future. Maybe, but struggling families now can’t wait 50 years for the savings to materialize – the time currently estimated it will take for this project to break-even.
The obsession to build a massive arts and culture center also comes to mind. Rejected by voters once, the Assembly seems determined to resurrect it with an even larger price tag. Combined with what were supposed to be fairly modest improvements to the Centennial Hall Convention Center, the total project could now surpass $77 million.
With Juneau’s declining population and narrow tax base, it’s hard to understand how Juneau residents could possibly support a facility of this size with enough frequency to pay the light bill. That Juneau will attract significant numbers of out-of-town patrons with the community’s high transportation costs and limited hotel accommodations is just a pipe dream.
But that’s not all. A third project is also being considered, a new city museum. Price tag: unknown.
Juneau’s Assembly blithely insists these are needed improvements that will enrich our town and make life better for all concerned.
Tell that to the Food Bank and its patrons.
It’s almost as if the Assembly is unaware that their extravagant spending risks driving more residents either out of town or into the Food Bank lines.
There is another warning on the horizon.
Juneau’s school buildings are underutilized as our student counts continue to decrease. Juneau’s “peak” school enrollment was 5,701 in 1999. Based on city forecasts, it will be 4,225 in October 2022 and by 2032, Juneau’s total school enrollment will drop to 3,035, a loss of almost 2,700 students in over 20 years.
With all this as a backdrop, Juneau voters will be expressing their opinion on Assembly spending priorities when marking their ballots in the municipal election occurring now. Specifically, two propositions on the ballot, Proposition #1, a $35 million general obligation bond to partially pay for a new city hall, and Proposition #3, the renewal of a “temporary” 1% sales tax, deserve their attention.
Both of these propositions will add significantly to future city operating costs and need to be modified before being approved by voters.
For the record, I am not against improving Juneau’s arts and culture facility, its government offices, or maintaining our schools. These facilities do play an important role in Juneau’s quality of life and make Juneau a better place to live and work.
But the sponsors of these projects and other costly undertakings would be wise to scale them appropriately to the size of Juneau’s population and the financial ability of its taxpayers. Jacking up property taxes precipitously at a time when our economy is still in recovery isn’t the answer.
And the Food Bank should be a higher priority than it apparently is now.
Juneau City Manager, Rorie Watt, has correctly identified the problem when he stated in his most recent Budget Message, “…the FY23 budget appears to demonstrate a structural deficit that future Assemblies will need to wrestle with. Going forward, the Assembly must take corrective action to build a budget that pays for itself with current revenues.”
No one wants to say no to someone’s grand project. No one wants to say that you must do more with less.
But someone has to make the hard choices.
If the Juneau Assembly won’t, then voters should.
After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular opinion page columnist for the Juneau Empire. 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.