A cycle rickshaw passes the North State Office Building parking garage located on Willoughby Avenue in downtown Juneau in September. A $30 million request to pay for upgrades to the parking garage tied for first on a list of requests for state legislative funding as ranked by Juneau Assembly members. Assembly Member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said expanding parking there can free up other downtown space for housing and other development, which is a top overall goal of city leaders. The parking upgrade is officially ranked second on the list since a request to further development of the Pederson Hill Subdivision had a higher ranking on last year’s priority list. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

A cycle rickshaw passes the North State Office Building parking garage located on Willoughby Avenue in downtown Juneau in September. A $30 million request to pay for upgrades to the parking garage tied for first on a list of requests for state legislative funding as ranked by Juneau Assembly members. Assembly Member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said expanding parking there can free up other downtown space for housing and other development, which is a top overall goal of city leaders. The parking upgrade is officially ranked second on the list since a request to further development of the Pederson Hill Subdivision had a higher ranking on last year’s priority list. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

City, school district draft legislative priorties

Assembly members rank housing projects high, while school board opts for new tactic of broader goals

Just looking at the rankings it may seem city leaders suddenly consider replacing radios for public safety employees a major priority and a second Douglas crossing of much lower interest than a few months ago. But the annual list of priorities leaders hope the Alaska State Legislature will provide money for doesn’t necessarily reflect their importance.

Meanwhile, the Juneau School District also has a draft list of priorities that’s taking a new form as a collection of general program, staff support and other goals. So while the top priority is “early, adequate, equitable, and predictable funding of public education,” there’s also a request to support the creation of an “Alaska history textbook” as well as “supporting the preservation and restoration of Alaska Native Indigenous languages.”

The city’s list of 22 projects ranked individually by all nine Juneau Assembly members was presented during their Finance Committee meeting Wednesday, with only one item (a Waterfront Juneau-Douglas City Museum at No. 16) retaining the same rank from last June when this year’s municipal budget was approved. Many others saw big shifts, such as the radios at No. 4 after not being on last year’s list and a west Douglas road extension that dropped from No. 7 in June to No. 20 now.

While the list to some extent reflects their importance to Assembly members, it’s also based on how important legislative funding is to allow a listed item to proceed, said Assembly Member Wade Bryson. An example is the No. 2 item on the list, seeking $30 million for expanding State Office Building parking, which was at No. 10 last June.

“Some projects had more momentum over the year,” Bryson said Thursday. “The state parking garage is a great example. The state contributed funds to it and we contributed funds to it,” making it more likely state makers will provide addition funds to complete to project when “a year ago we might not get any funding and support.”

In a similar manner, but resulting in a drop rather than a rise on the list, the second Douglas crossing is currently No. 8 on the list compared to No. 2 last June. Bryson said that because significant state and federal funding has been secured for the project since the budget was adopted it’s not something that has to be such a high legislative funding priority to become reality.

Public comments about the rankings are being accepted before Assembly members and city staff meet with Juneau’s legislative delegation at an official breakfast Jan. 26. The Assembly is scheduled to formally adopt the final list, with any amendments from the discussion process, while meeting as the Committee of the Whole that night.

City specifics

The initial list, including details about each project, was published in draft form last September and Assembly members were asked to rank their preferences following a Public Works and Facilities Committee meeting Dec. 19.

Top items in the rankings include:

— No. 1: $3 million for the Pederson Hill Subdivision development, to help fund $10 million for street lighting, water and wastewater lines, streets and sidewalks. Assembly Member Greg Smith said it’s among multiple high-ranking items related to housing, and a reason for it topping the list is considerable funds and effort have already been made to make it “shovel-ready.”

— No. 2: $30 million toward $40 million in total funds for repairs/upgrades to the parking garage north of the State Office Building. Assembly Member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs said that, in addition to fulfilling a state need that may appeal to legislators, expanding parking there can free up other downtown space for housing and other development.

— No. 3: $2 million for Telephone Hill redevelopment, including surveying costs, demolishing existing structures and environmental cleanup. The ultimate intent, according to the city’s report, is to “redevelop over three acres of property in downtown Juneau for the best and highest use.”

The radios for emergency workers at No. 4 have quickly emerged as a priority need due to various functionality issues, including incompatibilities between different personnel who respond to the same incidents, Smith said. Ranking fifth was upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems for the Juneau School District — which as with most items on the list has been discussed as a priority, but wasn’t included on the list last June because it was part of a much larger budget request by the district.

“The school district kept bringing up things that were super expensive,” Bryson said. “The mayor (Beth Weldon) said ’bring us a project we can do.’”

Also new on the list at No. 6 is $5.75 million for upgrades to the Mendenhall Waterwater Treatment Plant, which has been coping with treatment-quality violations due to high precipitation as well as clogging due to improper items such as mopheads being flushed down toilets.

Sun shines on the Mendenhall Wastewater Facility, which has emerged as a possible top 10 legislative priority for the City and Borough of Juneau. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Sun shines on the Mendenhall Wastewater Facility, which has emerged as a possible top 10 legislative priority for the City and Borough of Juneau. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Falling from No. 1 on the list in June to No. 7 now is $8 million for a multimodal path in Lemon Creek “that connects residents to schools, shopping, jobs and services.” Hughes-Skandijs said she kept the project in her top-three rankings, but ultimately it appears other Assembly members decided other items – housing in particular — were of greater need.

Among other items singled out because their ranking may seem misleading is $2.5 million requested for design and construction of a municipal composting facility, which was unranked last June and currently No. 13 on the list. The facility got a considerable boost and prominence from $2.5 million already secured in federal funds contained in the just-signed federal omnibus budget bill, and that means city officials are giving it considerable attention despite its seemingly low ranking.

“The project itself is really a much bigger project than that “2.5 million,” said Katie Koester, the city’s engineering and public works director, explaining the addition request to match the federal allocation during the Finance Committee meeting, “We’re pursuing other grant sources and its really part of a bigger waste strategy.”

Other projects lower on the list may similarly have a higher chance of realization than they appear due to federal funds.

“I’ve got my eye on a lot of federal opportunities with the federal infrastructure law,” Hughes-Skandijs said, adding it’s also important to be seeking out other funding sources.

How each Assembly member ranked the items is confidential, which Smith said he supports since it allows for more honest assessments. Members interviewed Thursday said they generally didn’t see a great deal of variance between their rankings and the revised collective list.

Koester said there were multiple items tied in the rankings, so priority in such instances was given to the higher-ranking item when the budget was adopted last June.

“For example, Pederson Hill and the North State Office Building were tied for the No. 1 spot and because Pederson Hill ranked No. 3 last year over the parking garage at No. 10 it took the top spot,” she wrote in a memo presented to Assembly members.

A new, more general school wish list

While the school district has two specific projects on the city’s list — the HVAC upgrades and $2 million for security upgrades – the district’s priority list tends to reflect broader requests overlapping those of statewide education entities.

“Our list was designed based on different things that were all essentially the same the category, like safety,” Juneau School Board President Deedie Sorensen said. “We built them by category because there’s been so much deferred maintenance that having one giant rehabilitation of a school doesn’t help the district.”

The district’s heating system, for example, is problematic “because they can’t talk to each other,” Sorensen said. Similarly, safety upgrades included in the Assembly’s priorities is a district-wide need not limited to specific work at specific schools.

“We’ve been doing it the same old way for years,” she said, describing how the district’s list was similar in approach to the Assembly’s. So “for years it’s been roofs and roofs and roofs.”

Among the items on this year’s draft list are non-specific funding requests for “intervention for K-3 students,” “emergency support to address pandemic impacts,” “early learning programs,” and “reconfigure and fund a competitive retirement benefits program.”

A second reading of the district’s priority list is scheduled during the board’s next regular meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10. As with city leaders, school officials will meet with the local legislative delegation early during the session to discuss the final set of priorities.

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com

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