When it comes to a senior sales tax exemption, candidates for Juneau’s city Assembly didn’t split along ideological lines at Monday’s Juneau Votes! forum. Instead, political experience fractured the seven candidates vying for Juneau’s three open seats.
All of Juneau’s incumbent Assemblymembers expressed support for CBJ’s sales tax as written, which requires a sales tax only on “non-essential” items. Those vying to take their seats called for a return to a full sales tax exemption for seniors.
Challengers Rob Edwardson (District 2), write-in Andy Hughes (Areawide) Loretto Jones and Chuck Collins (District 1), argued for a return to a full exemption.
“Just because you turn 65, does not mean that you are making the kind of money you did when you were 42. Let’s take care of our seniors,” Jones said.
“People make plans based on limited incomes, and I am worried some of the people may not have been covered (by the reforms),” Edwardson said.
“When I talk to my friends, and I have many of them that own businesses, a very large number of them complained about losing business due to the senior sales tax exemption,” Collins said. “Seniors can live anywhere.”
When the Assembly reformed the sales tax in 2015, those over 65 had to start paying a sales tax for clothes, soap and ready-made foods, while keeping their tax exemption for food, electricity, heating fuel, utilities and landfill use.
Incumbents Jesse Kiehl (District 1), Maria Gladziszewski (Areawide) and Debbie White (District 2) — who each were on the Assembly when sales tax reforms were made — said the choice was tough. With the city’s population aging, the tax burden was being shifted to the young, and the full sales tax exemption was at risk of being “eliminated completely,” Gladziszewski said.
“The person who answers the phone in my office would be paying sales tax but once I got to be 65 I wouldn’t, and that just didn’t seem fair to me,” Gladziszewski said, “I want to keep it for all seniors, some benefit for all seniors.”
“This was probably the toughest vote I have taken on the Assembly. When we reformed the sales tax, it cost almost $3 million a year and the cost was growing every year. It was heading on a rocket sled to 6 or 7 percent of our general government budget. It was not sustainable,” Kiehl said.
Urban mining divides candidates
The only other issue candidates split significantly on was whether or not to alter CBJ’s mining ordinance to attract more interest from industry, or to keep it how it is to retain local control.
A group of successful Juneau businessmen and mining industry advocates have recently pushed to rewrite CBJ’s urban mining ordinance. The changes would make it easier to open a mine on the Juneau road system.
Advocates say they want to streamline redundancies that require an unnecessary third layer of regulations beyond state and federal mine permitting. Skeptics say the reforms would remove control from local hands.
At issue is reopening the long-shuttered AJ Mine, which is situated near a population center and a CBJ drinking water source. Mine claims near Herbert Glacier would also be affected.
Hughes, Collins and White supported changing the ordinance. They cited a need for new, high-paying mine jobs.
“We need to streamline it where we can without jeopardizing safeguards to the downtown area, our water supply and our environment,” Hughes said.
“The CBJ does not have the expertise locally, on staff, to make that law work,” Collins said, “I am in favor of streamlining the ordinance and keeping industry on our side.”
Kiehl, Edwardson and Gladziszewski argued against changing the ordinance. It was unclear where Jones stood.
“We know that you can do mining right in Southeast Alaska, I think Greens Creek and Kensington are great examples. Doing it right under the downtown business district and uphill from our main water supply is a higher bar,” Kiehl said.
“I don’t accept the premise that it’s streamlining,” Edwardson said. “… I don’t think the City and Borough of Juneau can surrender its due-diligence responsibilities.”
On most other issues brought up at the forum — crime, education funding and opioid addiction — candidates differed only in their approaches.
All candidates committed to funding the Juneau School District to the maximum amount allowed by the state. Gladziszewski called education funding a top priority. Edwardson expressed support for funding pre-kindergarten programs. White proposed “going around the cap” by finding alternative ways to fund education initiatives.
All candidates also expressed support for bolstering funding for Capital City Fire/Rescue, though they differed in how this might be done. Incumbents Kiehl, White and Gladziszewski all said they had the endorsement of the local firemen’s union. Capital City Fire/Rescue has recently called on the Assembly for more funds as staffing currently does not meet firefighting standards.
The 2017 Juneau Votes! Assembly Candidate Forum is a partnership between KTOO Public Media and the Juneau Empire. It was moderated by Empire reporter Alex McCarthy and KTOO reporter Jacob Resneck. An archived video can be found on juneauempire.com or in the videos section of the Empire’s Facebook page.
Correction: an earlier version of this story said that CBJ requires seniors pay sales tax only on “essential items.” They pay sales tax only on “non-essential” items like clothes and ready-made foods. Additionally, language in the previous version of this article also suggested that seniors used to have a beer and wine sales tax exemption. That has never been the case.
• Contact reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or email@example.com