At Saturday’s finance meeting, the topics dubbed the least important were the most discussed.
City and Borough of Juneau Assembly members ranked 80 different expenditures this month, and during an almost-four-hour meeting, they reviewed an aggregated list of the prioritized expenses.
Assembly member Loren Jones, who is finance committee chair, said it had been about four years since the Assembly took a look at prioritizing expenditures. The need to re-examine expenditures was a big part of discussions during the last budget-making process, too.
“I think it’s a fantastic process,” said Assembly Rob Edwardson, before adding the priorities lists don’t necessarily reflect how the city will spend. “This establishes a framework for us to discuss the budget. When we actually get into the budget, there’s going to be so many more factors. The exercise that we’re doing today isn’t going to jeopardize anybody’s jobs.”
The priorities list put an emphasis on emergency response and education. Of the 12 most prioritized programs, 10 were related to either Juneau Police Department or Capital City Fire/Rescue. Funding Juneau School District to the cap tied with JPD emergency and non-emergency patrol at No. 8, and capital improvement project support for schools tied with JPD records, evidence, information and technology and electronics at No. 10.
“I think it came out as roughly what I expected,” said Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski.
Other Assembly members agreed.
However, they also agreed that as the list went on, the rankings were somewhat arbitrary.
“You really can’t tell the difference between rank 61 (Zach Gordon Youth Center Supplemental Youth Programs) and rank 65 (Treadwell Ice Arena),” Gladziszewski said.
The committee spent the most time analyzing the 20 items with the lowest ranking on the list, since if budget cuts are eventually made, they would likely come from the expenditures considered least essential.
The last item on the list, Mount Jumbo Gym, prompted discussion.
The gym, which Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove said is used fairly frequently, is in need of about $750,000 in upkeep. That means closure could be in the cards, except that might not be much less costly than the work.
“There’s no easy out on this one,” City Manager Rorie Watt said. “I would be very surprised if demolition costs were under half a million.”
The gym could also potentially be remodeled to be the site of a child care facility.
“We have a very strong need for child care in the community,” said Assembly member Wade Bryson. “We have a building that could be utilized and could be the answer for our child care needs.”
The City and Borough of Juneau previously considered closing Mount Jumbo Gym, as well as the city museum and Eagle Valley Center, in the spring of 2017 when it was trying to balance the budget for the 2018 Fiscal Year.
On Saturday, other low-priority items that were discussed included parking — Assembly members uniformly said downtown parking needs improvement — and Eaglecrest Ski Area.
Jones said money CBJ spends on Eaglecrest shouldn’t be considered a subsidy since the city has decided it wants to have a ski area that it operates. The city typically spends just less than $1 million on Eaglecrest per year.
“To call it a subsidy means we think they should always be self-supporting,” Jones said.
Bryson spoke to his desire to support Eaglecrest’s plans to expand its summer operations. In June, Eaglecrest shared plans with an estimated $30-$35 million price tag that would expand ziplining, build a mountain coaster, provide a new gondola lift and more.
“We have an opportunity right now, to open up Eaglecrest for an additional 100-plus days a year,” Bryson said. “I was a little disappointed it made it to the bottom of the pile here.”
It wasn’t the only expense valued by Assembly members to wind up with a low-priority ranking.
Assembly member Carole Triem pointed out all three public libraries were ranked in the bottom of the 20 of the priority list.
“It’s kind of a bad look for us,” Triem said.
The committee also looked at sources of monies, and asked questions about a handful of ideas that would affect revenue.
For the most part, Assembly members avoided endorsing or speaking against ideas, and instead asked for more information about a possible seasonal sales tax, taxing purchases made by nonprofit organizations, taxing on-board cruise ship sales, a sales tax holiday and raising the property tax by .1 mil.
Sometimes critiques were couched in the requests for more information.
“The one thing I would like to see here is what percentage of money that would come from people earning living wage or below in Juneau,” Edwardson said of a sales tax increase. “I oppose this because sales taxes in general tend to be regressive, and they tend to hurt people the most who are using the largest percentage of their income on goods in Juneau.”
Bryson agreed. He also asked if the impact a potential property tax increase could have on the cost of living could be calculated.
Some Assembly members, including Michelle Bonnet Hale, expressed interest in finding out more about the possibility of removing sales tax on food in favor of a seasonal sales tax increase.
There also seemed to be interest in looking into funding Capital Transit with Marine Passenger Fee funds.
“I think that at a minimum, it’s something we should study,” Hale said. “It’s really a heavy load from tourists in the summertime. It’s very inconvenient for locals actually.”
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.