Win Gruening: Juneau Assembly ignores voters, ramps up spending and taxes

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By WIN GRUENING

Capital City citizens and businesses have endured double-digit increases in property taxes over the last several years, yet the Juneau Assembly is doubling down on a spending spree and raising taxes.

Does the Assembly care about the public they serve?

City officials assert that the budget is “balanced,” and that revenues and expenditures are not projected to be materially different from the prior year.

But that ignores the substantial changes within recurring revenues and expenses as well as one-time expenditures that can be funded out of reserves. So, while the city may, in fact, end up with a “balanced budget,” it’s not because revenues actually equal expenses, it’s because the city can choose to use its cash reserves (or, in some cases, use debt) to finance their deficit spending.

This has serious implications for taxpayers who ultimately are responsible for paying off bonded indebtedness or replenishing city reserves via sales and property taxes levied by the city. 

Over the years, the city has developed a bad habit of over-collecting property taxes and underestimating sales tax receipts. The resulting excessive reserves have allowed the Assembly to finance all sorts of projects and activities that would never pass muster with voters.

The Assembly’s on-going obsession with building an arts and culture center connected to an expanded Centennial Hall is a perfect example. The “Capital Civic Center” (CCC) continues to receive millions of dollars despite the fact the arts center component was soundly rejected by voters in 2019.

Nevertheless, in December 2021, the Assembly appropriated $2 million toward engineering and design of the project and then passed a resolution in March 2022 allocating up to $10 million in funding from cruise passenger fees. In 2023, another $5 million was added making the total amount appropriated or committed for the project since inception $19 million, all without the approval of the voters who will be taxed to operate and maintain it.

This year the Assembly is considering giving the project a $4 million “advance” on their passenger fee commitment. Some view this as “free money” since it comes from cruise passengers. But other uses that it displaces should be a higher priority. Electrification of the city cruise docks, for example, will be short-changed if $10 million is squirreled away for the Capital Civic Center.

The Assembly’s CCC priority is astonishing given that it lacks electoral support, any justified return-on-investment, and is beyond the financial scope for Juneau’s population. Especially when Tlingit & Haida Central Council recently announced plans to build a large event center that “can be a gathering place for major events like Celebration, the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament and Native Youth Olympics.”

The 2021 $2 million design study was supposed to nail down the CCC cost, but no one seems curious why no answers are forthcoming.

Voters also rejected a $35 million bond issue for a new city hall in Juneau but $16 million in prior appropriations remain buried in city accounts that aren’t being used to reduce the budget. Why not? 

But that’s not all.

Other projects totaling $14 million are also being considered for community grants by the Assembly in the FY25 budget. A partial list of these projects raises questions about how they will reduce Juneau’s cost of living or expand the economy. 

  • $4 million – Land purchase for Association of Education for Young Children (AEYC)
  • $2 million – Homeless/Low Income housing for Gastineau Human Services
  • $2 million – Homeless/Low Income housing for Juneau Community Foundation
  • $500K – Operational support for AEYC – Parents as Teachers Program
  • $500K – STEAM/Fab Lab for Sealaska Heritage Foundation
  • $500K+ – Studies/Research for JEDC and Travel Juneau
  • $218K – Operational support to Juneau Arts and Humanities Council

Some projects may be worthwhile but with all the available vacant buildings, it’s fair to ask why we need any new buildings. Some requests have no detailed plans for completion or for self-support and will likely return year after year for more money. That isn’t an effective use of the Community Grant process.

The Juneau Assembly seems incapable of saying no. Instead, they have announced a $2 million increase in property taxes to help fund their largesse.

Will they ever draw the line and when will voters decide enough is enough?

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.

11 COMMENTS

  1. At this point, it’s time to stop blaming the Assembly. It’s time to blame ourselves.

    We say no, after a break they push ahead. We say no again, they take a shorter break and push even further. We say no again, they say that’s cute you think we care.

    All the rejection of initiatives, bonds, and tax increases are meaningless. Why? They know, know they are gonna get re elected. So they know when we say no, we really mean go ahead anyway.

    Until we actually start voting people out, this isn’t gonna change. Why should it?

  2. Leftists will never stop until they exhaust themselves or all (your) resources.

    Ultimately, they must be driven off or removed. All of this is just a waiting game until then.

    How many times do we need to see the same outcomes because of their ideology in history?

  3. Juneau is the mini-Anchorage, their assembly is infested with socialist democrats whom couldn’t blance a check book if their own life depended on it.

  4. The constituency of Juneau, ie: the Voters, put these people in-charge so, I’m guessing that an overwhelming majority of the people are satisfied with the performance of the Juneau Assembly, including runaway spending and higher taxes. No Worries(!), we’re frustrated with the similar situation here in Anchorage too!

  5. Look at that landscape. I wonder if that entire area is going to disappear in a landslide when the time comes?

    • Hasn’t yet. We get one really good one every other year or so.
      The bigger concern is a major earthquake dropping much of it into the channel

  6. In Anchorage, you can never really own your house when paying property taxes that are almost as much as the mortgage payments. Some have paid more in taxes than the price of the home.
    We need a mass tax mutiny to get city’s attention.

    • I think what you need (which would address a lot of other issues than merely taxation tyranny) is a mass mutiny of voters against the Anchorage assembly members. Vote them out. Period. Before residents have to default to “politics by other means” to rid the infestation.

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