Emily Mesch: Assembly Areadwide Candidate
Occupation: Goldbelt Tram
Bio shared by candidate: “Born in Israel, grew up in Florida, and moved back to Israel for college. I earned a BA in Business Administration, served two years in the Budget Office of the Israel Air Force, and watched my mom live out the last years of her life before moving back to the US. I’ve lived in Alaska since 2017, and I’ve spent that time working to become a part of my community, and to make Juneau my home. I’ve worked for the state, for the city, and for private business. I’ve volunteered my time for several local organizations. In 2021, I bought my first house, a home in the Mendenhall Valley, and I intend to keep working to improve Juneau, this city that I call home.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you want to be a member of the Juneau Assembly?
I want to help Juneau succeed. When I moved here from Skagway I was sitting on the ferry and just thinking, “OK, I’m moving to a new place. How do I get involved with the community? How do I make it a better place?” I immediately joined the board of the Congregation Sukkat Shalom, the board of SEAGLA (Southeast Alaska LGBTQ+ Alliance), then two years ago I joined the Juneau Human Rights Commission.
I feel like this is my next step in helping to build a better community.
Describe your knowledge and involvement with Juneau’s municipal government and what you think the strengths and weaknesses of it are based on those experiences.
I worked in City Hall for a year during COVID, I was in the public information office, managing CBJ’s social media outlets. I was able to see a lot from the inside of what works and what doesn’t, and this might be institutional bias, but I think a lot of it is communication.
Sometimes they’re very complicated issues that by the time the general public hears it, it’s been simplified to a point where they effectively don’t understand what the actual issues are. I think that just from my background communication, I think I can help with that.
One of the other issues, I think across the board in Juneau and in the country, is staffing. We need to find solutions to make sure that all of our departments are adequately staffed and that we retain our good employees. That’s one of the things we should be looking at.
Are you against, or in favor of the proposal for a new City Hall? What are your thoughts on the decision by the Assembly to both put it on the ballot again after it failed, and to fund an advocacy initiative?
One of the issues that I think needs to be highlighted is communication. So I think the $50,000 initiative is important and what people don’t realize is that it’s not that the city’s decided “We’re going to spend $50,000,” it was “We’re going to allocate $50,000 of resources of a person’s time in the day, who’s already on staff, to communicate.” Communication is essential. It’s one of the things that a city government needs to do no matter where you are in the world.
The City Hall situation as it is now isn’t tenable and I think it’s something that is urgent. I think it needs to happen somehow or another and the voters get to decide how they want it to happen. We have multiple different offices. If we have everything under one roof, employees will be more productive because they’re in an environment that’s built to be productive and not a 70-year-old firehouse. We are the city government, we’re not the Ghostbusters.
I think a lot of people voted against it because they thought there were options, but I think a lot of people are now realizing, “Oh, well, if the city already owns this land, it’s more central if it’s at this better location.”
The problem is, again, we need approval for the funding, and we brought voters’ approval. I think most people in Juneau understand the need for a new City Hall. It’s just how we get there. And there’s some sticker shock. And there are some legitimate concerns about undertaking a large project, like creating a new City Hall that hopefully will be with us for decades, if not a century. We want to do this right, so it’s important that it goes to vote and it’s important that voters approve it.
What is your assessment of how much the city taxes its residents versus the amount of public services it provides to them? Specifically outline what adjustment in each of those areas you’d advocate to change as a member of the Assembly.
I think one of the problems in general in society is different people have to come at things with different experiences. If somebody has a background where they’ve just had negative interactions with any government — whether it’s the state of Alaska, the federal government, or another city — they’re naturally going to be less trusting of the city government.
So when the city government says, “well, this is the budget, this is what we need, this is the level of property tax we need to set in order to do all of these things.” If you come from that perspective you’re not going to believe it, naturally. And that’s one of the conflicts that we have at CBJ.
We have to have an understanding of what everything’s going for and we have to have buy-in from people to know that everything is being spent appropriately. I genuinely believe that. The way things work is that the Assembly says, “These are the things that our community has decided it wants, this is what it’s going to cost and now we have to set the mill rate.”
I think that the Assembly is listening, but one of the problems is the housing prices have gone up faster than the city can react. I think part of it is just the market changes so rapidly that by the time we set the mill rate, by the time things are assessed, by the time you pay your taxes, it ends up being higher than what the city had intended.
But I think that the process is happening in the right way — where we look at the needs first and then how we accomplish those needs. There are things that we can consider in terms of instituting other kinds of taxes. I am very much against the idea of a sales tax, especially when our prices for goods are as high as they are. If we do have a sales tax I think it should be specifically targeted as something for parts of the industry that affect tourism specifically, so the tourists are paying the bulk of those taxes and not general residents. In general I think if you look at how we’re being taxed, and looking at what we’re getting from it, I think the city is doing a good job.
How can the Assembly better balance the growing cruise ship tourism industry’s impact on the quality of life of residents, specifically regarding affordable housing, environmental impact and overall cost of living?
That is a multifaceted question. First of all I think the five-ship limit that is being implemented is a good place to start. That’s the first time in a long time that I think that Juneau has utilized any kind of leverage against the cruise industry, something that they wouldn’t approve of.
Having points of leverage allows us to negotiate with cruise companies and forcing them to negotiate in good faith is a good step. They’re multinational organizations with a lot more resources than a city like Juneau, but I think we have more value to them than they have to us and we haven’t really been acting like it.
There are legitimate concerns about if we’re adding another dock (the proposed Aak’w Landing) — even if we have the five-ship limit, isn’t that going to invite bigger ships? What if suddenly we have five 4,000-person cruise ships instead of the smaller ships we have now? I think we need to keep an eye on that, but I think the ship limit is a good place to start.
As I said, it (the ship limit) can be adjusted year over year, but it’s something that we need to plan for directly. Another hot topic issue is the gondola. I think, again, it’s something that’s flashy that people think about, but if you look at the actual city budget it’s like a drop in the bucket in terms of what we’re actually investing, and what the community gains back in terms of just having more things to do in Juneau and spreading out the tourists.
If we have more places to put them, there will be less of a smaller impact on each part of Juneau individually. Little things across the board, we need to be looking at everything that we can do to improve. How can we improve the tourist experience, but more importantly, improve residence experiences when tourists are in town? It’s not one answer. It’s a lot of answers.
Are there any substantial matters that we didn’t get around to talking about that you think are pertinent to discuss?
I think Juneau currently has a lot of challenges and I think they are addressable challenges, they’re meetable challenges. But they’re not easy. We have a lot of hurdles that most cities don’t have. But we understand that as a community, and I think that in general, we’re a community that knows how to band together when we need to — we saw that last month with the flooding with so much support for the people who are affected. Challenges like that are going to keep happening, whether it’s next year, whether it’s 10 years. I think it’s important to remind the voters that we are a community, we are neighbors, and we need to work to build better communities for ourselves every day in little ways.
• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (651) 528-1807.