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Win Gruening: New City Hall for Juneau comes down to dollars, sense


Soon, Juneau voters will be receiving ballots in their mailboxes for the 2023 regular municipal election scheduled for October 3, 2023. This election will be watched closely for several reasons.

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The ballot features the second attempt by the Juneau Assembly to pass a bond partially financing the construction of a new city hall. In addition, dissatisfaction with past CBJ Assembly actions has generated a record number of candidates competing for two open Assembly seats as well as challenges to two incumbents.

With the idiosyncrasies of vote-by-mail elections unilaterally imposed upon Juneau residents by the Assembly in 2022, we may not know election results until weeks after election day. The lack of transparency and opportunity for fraud inherent in vote-by-mail systems only adds to the distrust many people have with government and will remind voters how this Assembly has ignored community concerns by conducting their business with minimal regard for public process.

Voters need look no further than these recent examples:

  • Unwarranted, contentious, and exorbitant increases in property taxes
  • Non-disclosure of emails constituting public testimony     
  • New city manager selection held almost entirely in secret

But the most glaring example of lack of transparency is the Assembly’s dogged pursuit of a brand-new city hall and their appropriation of $50,000 to advocate for it. The re-introduction by the Assembly of a previously failed city hall proposal without engaging the electorate or considering any modifications is inexplicable. The location and design remain unchanged with a $2 million increase in cost. It’s essentially identical to their 2022 failed effort but with a reduced bond amount and higher cost.

There’s no logical reason to present this to voters again unless, now unconstrained by the requirement to remain neutral (having passed an ordinance allowing an advocacy campaign financed city taxpayer dollars), the Assembly is free to play fast and loose with the facts.

That is exactly what is happening.

Apparently, Juneau city leaders hope no one will dive into the numbers, but instead accept their figures at face value.

During a Chamber of Commerce presentation on August 24th, Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt outlined the purported financial benefits of a new city hall.

  • In three years, CBJ will avoid spending over $1.1 million annually on rent and approximately $14M in repair and replacement costs.
  • In 32 years, cumulative savings will exceed $43.3M when the project would break-even.
  • CBJ will save $200 million+ in 70 years.

There is no independent third-party evaluation supporting these alleged financial savings. We only have the city-sponsored economic analysis, by Rain Coast Data in March of 2022, that had sharply different conclusions. That study assumed a project cost that was $5 million less ($38.2 million) and a bond amount that was $2 million lower ($25 million) than is currently proposed, with minor differences in bond rate and amortization.

Despite that, the city has now lowered the project break-even point to 32 years, 20 years less than 52 year break-even provided to voters just last year. Furthermore, net savings over 70 years of $200 million has been grossly inflated from the $33 million reflected in last year’s analysis.

Juneau voters should ask themselves: how did the city magically concoct a 500% increase in savings and an artificially low break-even point? Apparently by fiddling with their in-house modeling tool, assuming much higher projected rents, and conveniently omitting the hundreds of millions of dollars the $16.3 million downpayment would have earned after 70 years.

Beyond these financial shenanigans, voters should question the underlying assumption that the city needs brand-new office space for every employee. 

The pandemic permanently changed the office landscape. State offices are shrinking, commercial vacancies are increasing, rental rates are falling (not increasing as CBJ would have you believe), and employers are transitioning to a hybrid work environment that increasingly allows work-from-home.

Ignoring these facts by adding another 46,200 sqft of office space to downtown Juneau is not a solution. A better approach would be to explore future possibilities as more vacant office space opens up and/or evaluate re-purposing under-utilized school buildings.

Before filling out your ballot, ask yourself, are Juneau voters really getting the facts on the city hall project?

The dollars don’t add up. 

Will voters be swayed by spin or common sense?

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.



  1. I bet the politicians get their way somehow and the city taxpayers are going to pay. They need to pay up for the politicians they voted for so quit whining and give till it hurts.

  2. Sorry Win but you know as well as I do that common sense has always been in very short supply in Juneau….I can recall two parking structures, one new high school, a pool, an ice rink, at least two libraries, one gondola lift and a police station that all defied common sense.

    On the other hand, In a shocking moment of clarity Bruce Botelho’s ice palace did get laughed out of town.

    • Bob,
      I was a Juneau resident for 4 decades, despite being in the Building Game I repeatedly voted against EVERY CBJ BOND PROPOSAL, including anything for Eaglecrest. The one Bond Proposition that I voted for however was the Treadwell Arena. I recognized that an Ice Arena would be a valuable asset since it gave my hockey playing friends an outlet for their frustrations and kept them out of trouble, additionally it provided a whole new venue for the youth of Juneau, (not everyone ski’s). What’s weird is that I ended up supervising construction for the Treadwell Arena, Thunder Mountain High School and the New Juneau Transportation Center projects!
      2 out of 3 ain’t bad!

  3. The building could be built in Thailand where the dollar is strong. Then shipped over using a grant that supports the re introduction of ancient ways lost from modernization. The installation will be funded from economic action ways supplied by former homeless and drug addicted participants.

  4. This letter needs to be posted to every Juneau residence’s front door. CBJ leadership is dishonest or deluded – not sure which is worse. Duncan ‘Rorie’ Watt is finally leaving. Let’s make sure he doesn’t win on his way out the door. And let’s elect some fiscal conservatives to finally bring a voice of reason to Juneau politics.

  5. Three Factoids
    This vote by mail system was put in place to get specific outcomes, not to improve voting access.

    It’s easy to vote yourself into socialism, but you have to shoot your way out.

    They don’t have to win the vote, they just have to win the count

      • Yes I tested this and they accepted my ballot when they definitely should not have. Now there are people paying people for the ballots from people who don’t care about voting (60%) – this “election” system is laughable at best. And it’s incredibly easy to fill out other people’s absentee ballots on the internet. We need election validation, only way is paper ballots and in person voting, just make it a national holiday.

  6. Maybe if the faux junta hadn’t burned up so much good will with

    -whale park
    -runaway property tax hikes
    -back door forcing the new JACC on us

    We might, might, have been willing to listen.

  7. Either people in power are totally transparent about expenditures, or financial fraud will ensue.
    It really is that simple.

    Grateful to Win for doing the work reporters used to…

  8. Building fancy buildings directs 60% of the money to fancy materials and non-Juneau specialized tradesmen–both imported from outside Juneau. Renovating our streets and utilities directs 70% of the money to locally-produced materials and local tradesmen….. keeping twice as much capital money circulating in our community.


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