Win Gruening: Juneau Assembly underserves and overspends



Among the more important obligations of a modern municipal government are providing for public infrastructure and promoting economic growth and development. Elected leaders often struggle to balance these two responsibilities so that each fairly serves their constituents and contributes to the overall health of the community.

When these responsibilities are out of balance, the community suffers. 

Seemingly comfortable with an endless appetite for all sorts of public/non-profit projects, Juneau’s Assembly appears to have given little thought to supporting the citizens and private sector that will ultimately pay for their largesse.

The Assembly has blithely approved funding for extraneous projects costing millions of dollars in the last year. Some, such as $1.5 million for the Sealaska Heritage Foundation Art Campus project, are purportedly one-time expenditures. Others, like the million-dollar Vote-by-Mail initiative that provides no benefit, will continue to drag down the budget for years to come.

But those examples are dwarfed by two new projects, the re-imagined Centennial Hall/Juneau Arts & Cultural Center development and the proposed new City Hall. The CH/JACC venture (now dubbed Capital Civic Center) that was proposed as a way to save money has now morphed into a consolidated city-owned endeavor with a preliminary (and staggering) price tag of $77 million.

Together, the two projects could cost in excess of $100 million.

When first discussed several years ago, the estimated cost of a new city hall was pegged at almost $27 million. Who knows what it could cost today with current supply chain issues and rampant inflation?

Centennial Hall upgrades costing approximately $4.5 million were approved by voters in 2017 and those improvements (now underway) are not included in the estimates above. The JACC project was initially slated to cost $18 million – all privately funded by the arts community except for the city’s contribution of the land and a $1 million donation.

After years of sustained effort, JACC supporters have been unable to raise more than an additional $5 million toward their project. In 2019, they insisted the city provide an additional $7.5 million towards the estimated cost but the funding was decisively nixed by Juneau voters.

So given all that, how did Juneau city officials allow the already controversial JACC project to escalate into the risky mega-million behemoth being proposed today? And do projects of this size even make sense given Juneau’s economic and demographic trajectory?

Those are questions to be explored in future columns but, as a backdrop, I propose a wider discussion about how community elected officials and their staff have been empowered to develop a revenue and expenditure scheme that allows them to dole out significant amounts of money for favorite causes with little public oversight.

In normal years, the City and Borough of Juneau annual general governmental operating budget of approximately $100 million is offset more or less by  a $50 million contribution from property taxes and an equal amount from sales taxes. Yet, Juneau management of the budget has resulted in outsized and unnecessary accumulations of reserves – sometimes approaching $40 million. This is far in excess of what is required to run the borough on a daily basis.

In effect, Juneau is “over-collecting” property taxes through higher millage rates, socking it away, and then parceling it out in million-dollar chunks for pet projects that may or may not be justified. So it’s no big deal when assemblymembers, as they just did last week, unanimously vote to spend $2 million for a design study for a $77 million Capital Civic Center before they have a clue how much taxpayers would be willing to spend.

Assembly members spin the Capital Civic Center as a “different” project because it has a new name and would be totally owned by the city. Therefore, they can ignore issues raised previously by citizens who objected to this level of profligate spending without the economic base to support it.

With CBJ population stagnant and economy under stress, city elected leaders might reassess their priorities. It’s time to consider lowering taxes, which helps promote more affordable housing, and support serious economic development initiatives that would reduce the cost of living by increasing our tax base. Wildly speculative expenditures on government-owned facilities do little to stabilize or grow Juneau’s economy.

More to come…

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.


  1. My sympathies Win – but in determining that the CBJ has failed its constituents, you are forgetting to ask, “What do the people want?” In a liberal bureaucrat town like Juneau, what do you expect? Of course they will overspend and demand more from businesses to pay for their largess – that’s what liberals do. The challenge is in convincing those same liberals that their scheme is fundamentally unfair to those who are paying and providing for those feeding off the public teat – who can never be satisfied with paying their own way and have no sense of fairness. How much is enough? In your tax funded utopia, who benefits? The people will respond appropriately to exposed corruption and tax unfairness. They will also respond to the need for balancing your budget and just how much money you have to spend – get the word out.

  2. The easy revenue source for the assembly is to raise taxes. They already hit commercial property owners with a 50% tax increase. The rationale? Some businesses have done well during the pandemic and we need to tax them. Many businesses are still recovering and are now faced with a huge new bill. This of course will drive up costs of food, services, and rents. I see all these new homeless shelters popping up and wondering who is behind this and who’s paying. Our assembly has said they “want to be like Seattle.” We’re on our way…

  3. Looks like Juneau has an Assembly problem similar to Anchorage’s Assembly problem.
    Juneau has this problem because Juneau’s Assembly forced an easily corruptible mail-in ballot scheme on voters just like the Anchorage Assembly did, a scheme virtually guaranteeing job security, vast amounts of money, and most of all, protection from anything like accountability.
    In fact, it’s the very same scheme, with a few extra opportunities thrown in for corruption.
    According to Alaska “Juneau is not equipped to count its own ballots, and has contracted with the Municipality of Anchorage to do the tabulation.”
    Productive residents should accept their Assembly spends hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff they don’t need or want, but “…is not equipped to count its own ballots”.
    Productive residents should think about that… could this mean the problem has grown to the point that it may not be fixable until a sort of free-surface effect asserts itself, giving survivors one last chance to remake their Assembly into something more taxpayer-friendly?
    City elected leaders can hardly be expected to reassess their priorities without some sort of incentive which doesn’t depend for success on an easily corruptible mail-in ballot scheme.
    Whether that incentive comes from financial collapse, mass exodus, general labor strikes, taxpayer rebellion, whistleblower allegations, or federal law violations even the Biden administration can’t ignore is anyone’s guess.
    Point is, Win, the situation seems unlikely to improve, to favor productive residents, while government remains the only cottage industry keeping Juneau alive.
    And you can bet your city elected leaders know it.

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