Voters won’t be asked to approve a “blank check” for a new city hall this fall, but Juneau’s political leaders are for now asking for ballot language leaving the specific amount blank as they consider ways to make the sum smaller and presumably more palatable.
A presentation for a new city hall costing about $41 million was presented Monday night to the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly’s Committee of the Whole. Assembly members are considering a bond to fund most of the complex for the Oct. 4 municipal election, but the amount of the bond could be reduced significantly by scaling back the project and getting partial funding from alternative sources.
For instance, the cost could be reduced to $38 million by eliminating an underground parking garage, according to architects presenting the project Monday. Also, Assembly members are likely next week to place another measure on the ballot extending the city’s temporary 1% sales tax for another five years and proposing $6.3 million of those funds be used for the new city hall.
While those are big figures, Juneau leaders favoring a new city hall want voters to grasp a couple more numbers: The current aging city hall needs about $12 million in near-term maintenance, and the city is spending roughly $1 million a year for rent at the current city hall and overflow space in nearby buildings.
“Out of all the things we do the worst is city hall — paying $1 million a year for a business that’s in business forever,” Assembly member Wade Bryson said. “Every aspect of Juneau life will improve by us doing city hall correctly.”
Assembly members by a 7-2 vote asked the city manager to draft an ordinance putting a bond measure on the fall ballot, but without a specific funding amount. Final language for a bond measure must be introduced to the full Assembly by July 11 in order to ensure proper public comment and subsequent approval.
Assembly members Greg Smith and Maria Gladziszewski were the dissenters in the 7-2 vote to draft the fill-in-the-amount bond ordinance.
Monday’s slideshow presenting the current conceptual design of a new city hall, presented previously in various forms at public forums and other meetings, again highlighted features such as energy efficient design (including the ability to add solar panels later), public meeting space with large windows facing scenic viewpoints and a century-long design life.
Katie Koester, the city’s director of engineering and public works, emphasized the images aren’t necessarily the exact building residents will eventually see if they vote to fund the project.
“This level of design is so conceptual it’s really just to bring this concept to the voters,” she said.
The currently favored location for the site is 450 Whittier St., selected after numerous other sites and buildings have been rejected as too costly or impractical. Among the biggest issues of ongoing debate is parking, which the current proposed complex would largely accommodate with an underground parking garage.
While cutting the parking space from the new city hall would save a few million dollars, several Assembly members are questioning if the long-term implications are worth the short-term savings.
“I guess I’m concerned that for a building we want to be perpetual we’re making decisions based on short-term factors,” Assembly member Carole Triem said.
Bryson said his study of the issue suggests creating a local parking space costs about $80,000 — a figure city administrators said is reasonable, although subject to variability — and not including the underground facility in the new city hall means it can’t be added later if other options don’t work out.
“Having a vacant space that is used as parking under the building would be more advantageous than not having the space,” he said. “It’s not above what it would cost for us to create parking somewhere else.”
The meeting also featured a bit of “inside baseball” drama where a “two-minute” break may have been the difference between the project appearing on this fall’s ballot or getting delayed for at least a year.
The high price tag of the project, numerous unresolved questions about its features and other high-profile items voters will be facing this fall prompted Mayor Beth Weldon to propose not including the project in this year’s election
“I don’t think we’ve brought the public along,” she said. “I don’t think they’re ready to vote on this. Quite frankly when the voters are unsure, I don’t want to put this on the same ballot as the 1% sales tax.”
Bryson, a short time into the resulting discussion, called for a “two-minute at ease” — which lasted several minutes longer — during which he conferred with City Manager Rorie Watt, Koester and Weldon about the timeline and options Assembly members have before committing to a final ballot proposal. When the meeting resumed Weldon withdrew her motion to postpone a vote this year.
“Some good points were made,” she said, adding “it’s tough to bring the people along, but I was reminded it’s still June and we have time to educate the public.”
Not all members of the CBJ Assembly agreed.
“We’re emerging from an extremely disruptive pandemic,” Smith said. “People are anxious on how things are going to go forward with a lot of unknowns. I think maybe a $40 million bond question is too much.”
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org.