Rorie Watt, manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, speaks to the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the new City Hall project on Thursday. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Rorie Watt, manager for the City and Borough of Juneau, speaks to the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce about the new City Hall project on Thursday. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

City manager: A new City Hall ‘just makes financial sense’

Rorie Watt advocates for the project set to be proposed to voters on the ballot this fall

As City Manager Rorie Watt nears the end of a 30-year-long stint with the City and Borough of Juneau ahead of his retirement, he made one thing clear during a recent speech: he believes the city needs a new City Hall, now.

Watt, who is set to retire in September, gave a nearly hour-long presentation Thursday advocating for the approval of the new City Hall proposition set to appear on the Oct. 3 election ballot to a packed full room of more than 50 people during the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon.

The proposition, the only one on the ballot this fall, asks voters whether to approve $27 million in bond debt to fund the project estimated cost a total of $43 million.

The topic of a new City Hall has been seen as controversial from the get-go this election cycle, especially as it closely mirrors a proposal during the last election asking voters to approve $35 million in bond debt for the City Hall project. That proposal was narrowly shot down with 4,394 “yes” votes versus 4,640 “no” votes — a 246-vote difference.

The $27 million bond question on the ballot will only cover a portion of the project, Watt explained. But because the city has $16.3 million in general funds for the project already put aside, he said that is enough for the city to meet the cost of the project without having to take out more bond debt than necessary.

The $16.3 million is made up of a $10 million allocation which is included in the city budget passed in June and $6.3 million appropriated by the Assembly in June of 2022.

Watt has argued since the project was first pitched during the 2022 election that the new facility would have “a number of positive attributes” for both the city and residents. Benefits he cited include putting an end to the $800,000 the city pays in rent for the current City Hall, consolidating all municipal business in one location and freeing the city from the future high cost of maintenance estimated for the current City Hall.

He highlighted those benefits again during his speech, with much of his time spent arguing the city owning a building rather than renting one “just makes financial sense.”

“To put this to an individual person’s terms, if you need a car for the week — you rent a car. If you need a car for the year or if you’re not really sure — you get into a lease to buy. If you need a car for 10 years — you buy a car,” he said. “CBJ, our business plan is to be in business forever and therefore we should own our own building.”

Watt also pushed back at the idea of remodeling the existing City Hall, rather than building a new one. According to city estimates, a remodel would cost $14 million, with costs running in tandem with the rent the city continues to pay already and additional maintenance costs over the coming years.

“A remodel of City Hall to me sounds like the worst project ever,” he said. “We can’t stomach the thought of wasting your money on a remodel that gets you nothing.”

Recent criticism, both from individual residents and a recently formed advocacy group opposing the new City Hall project, has argued the city administration and Assembly hold an “out-of-touch attitude,” and moved forward with the new City Hall proposal for a second time along with the $50,000 advocacy initiative for it despite the ballot measure failing last election.

Watt addressed those concerns as well.

“I’ve heard feedback that sometimes people feel that we’re not listening, whether that’s me or staff or the Assembly — it’s just not the case,” he said. “Maybe we don’t answer as quickly as you like or maybe we reach different conclusions, but boy, we listen hard to the public.”

There were many questions raised after the speech, most of them not expressing a position on the decision to build City Hall, but rather logistics of the building itself.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807.

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