The last flowers of the season shine in the morning sunlight in the Main Street meridian on Thursday. A couple of Assembly candidates have proposed not planting downtown beds next year as a budget-saving measure.

The last flowers of the season shine in the morning sunlight in the Main Street meridian on Thursday. A couple of Assembly candidates have proposed not planting downtown beds next year as a budget-saving measure.

Contrary to claims, cutting the flowers downtown won’t save the city much money

Downtown Juneau’s hanging flower baskets are filled with blooms of all colors, ranging from fiery reds and pinks to radiant yellows and purples. But for a couple Juneau Assembly candidates, the first color that comes to mind when thinking about downtown’s flowers is green.

Candidates Mary Becker and Norton Gregory have both proposed doing away with the flowers as a cost-saving measure given that the state’s fiscal uncertainty will likely have harmful consequences on the city’s budget in the coming years.

“It’s very expensive to do all of the flowers downtown,” Becker said during an Assembly candidate debate on Sept. 20. “They’re beautiful; I love them. But it’s very possible that we can get volunteers to do that.”

In a phone interview with the Empire Thursday, Gregory expanded on the idea.

“Don’t get me wrong I love the flowers, but they’re not a necessity; they’re a luxury,” he said. “It makes me wonder where our priorities are when we’re facing these huge deficits.”

How much the city stands to save by discontinuing the downtown flowers isn’t exactly easy to determine, but it’s probably not very much. Kirk Duncan, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, estimates that if the city were to do away with the flowers, it could save as much as $35,000, a fraction of 1 percent of the $330.9 million in expenditures authorized for the current fiscal year.

“That’s our best estimate at this point in time,” Duncan said.

But that estimate doesn’t only include eliminating flowers. It also includes eliminating a staff position — albeit a part-time post. The greatest costs associated with the downtown flowers are the wages the city pays to the employees who maintain them.

The city grows all of the flowers it uses in the downtown basket, planters and beds in a greenhouse off of Riverside Drive in the Mendenhall Valley, near the high school and the new public library. The Parks and Recreation Department spends about $1,000 to $2,000 per year on flower seeds, but that is the only exclusively flower-related city expense.

Ben Patterson, the department’s landscape maintenance supervisor, said that he and his team of 10 part-time employees are responsible for maintaining the flowers during the summer, but nobody solely works with flowers.

According to Duncan, Patterson and the landscaping team are responsible for mowing about 1.1 million square feet of turf each week. In addition to keeping up with the parks controlled by the city, the department’s landscapers have to mow and maintain the grounds of the Juneau International Airport, Centennial Hall, the Juneau Police Department, Evergreen Cemetery, the libraries and several other city properties.

“When we eliminate somebody that means, by definition, that something is not going to get mowed; something is not going to get landscaped; something is not getting flowered,” Duncan told the Empire. “We really don’t have single purpose people. A lot of people are doing a lot of different things.”

Becker, an incumbent looking to hold her District 1 Assembly seat, told the Empire on Thursday that “there’s always a fine line” when it comes to cutting the cities budget. On one hand, she sees it as a necessary exercise. On the other, she doesn’t want cuts to impact jobs.

“It always decreases jobs, and I don’t like jobs being decreased,” Becker said.

She also expressed some doubts about expecting volunteers to fill in for Patterson and his crew permanently.

“Like everything else, volunteerism doesn’t last forever,” she said.

If voters allow her to hold her seat come municipal election day, which is Oct. 4, Becker said she’d continue researching whether it would be prudent for the city to stop acting as downtown’s gardener.

Assembly candidate Gregory said he plans to do the same if voters elect him to fill incumbent Kate Troll’s areawide Assembly seat. Unlike Becker, Gregory said he doesn’t necessarily believe city officials who say cutting flowers would only save about $35,000.

“I think that number is a little small — a lot small, actually,” Gregory said. “I want to see the details because the devil is in the details. That’s one of those things where if I’m on the Assembly, I could get the full story.”

• Contact reporter Sam DeGrave at 523-2279 or sam.degrave@juneauempire.com.

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In this file photo from July 2011, Thomas McKenzie, left, and Nick Ramseth of the city's parks division add to the color bonanza of downtown flower beds with their orange rain slickers as they pull weeds and pick dead flowers.

In this file photo from July 2011, Thomas McKenzie, left, and Nick Ramseth of the city’s parks division add to the color bonanza of downtown flower beds with their orange rain slickers as they pull weeds and pick dead flowers.

In this file photo from July 2014, rain makes flowers grow but keeps tourists under their umbrellas.

In this file photo from July 2014, rain makes flowers grow but keeps tourists under their umbrellas.

In this file photo from May 2015, daffodils and tulips spring up on time for the start of Juneau's cruise ship season.

In this file photo from May 2015, daffodils and tulips spring up on time for the start of Juneau’s cruise ship season.

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