Mayoral candidates clash over seniors, wages

As Juneau’s upcoming special mayoral election draws closer, candidates Karen Crane and Ken Koelsch are beginning to move further apart.

Tuesday’s Native Issues Forum, co-sponsored by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska and Sealaska Corp., revealed differences between the candidates, particularly on the divisive topic of senior sales tax exemptions, which the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly decided to restrict last year.

“As mayor, how are you going to fix these two bonehead decisions the Assembly made?” Juneau resident Brad Fluetsch asked during the question and answer portion of the noon forum at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall. Fluetsch was also referring to the CBJ Assembly’s recent decision to spend $16 million on a biosolids dryer.

In his answer, Koelsch focused more on the senior sales tax issue than biosolids, which he admitted not knowing “too much about.” The senior sales tax, on the other hand, is something that he said he’s quite familiar with. Koelsch testified against the move back when the Assembly was deciding whether to restrict the tax.

He said that seniors are currently organizing an initiative that would pressure the Assembly to change the restriction.

“There’s a myriad of things that can be tweaked in that,” he said, noting that the city could at least add gas and soap back onto the list of items that don’t include sales tax for seniors.

Crane, who supported restricting the senior sales tax exemption when the matter was before the Assembly, said that the decision was one that boiled down to “fairness” and looking at the “big picture.”

“Why should I receive an exemption when I check out at Fred Meyer, and the single mother behind me working an entry-level job is paying more?” Crane said.

Crane also noted that Juneau’s senior population is rapidly growing and the city will need more tax revenue to provide the services they expect.

Tuesday marked the second public forum the mayoral candidates attended. The first was a Feb. 12 discussion hosted by the Downtown Business Association. At that forum, their answers were largely similar: both gave pro-business, pro-downtown position answers to questions.

On Tuesday, the candidates were also divided on the topic of a city-instituted minimum wage.

“We have a minimum wage that is far below the cost of living, and housing costs that are astronomical,” said an unnamed audience member who raised the issue.

Koelsch said that he is a “firm believer that the market place dictates the wage.” He went on to say minimum-wage jobs don’t pay well because they are a “learning situation.” As mayor, he said he wouldn’t try to establish a minimum wage “at all.”

Crane said that she supported the state of Alaska’s movement to raise the minimum wage and wished that it was higher. She said that she disagreed with Koelsch, but she was unsure what the city can do about raising the minimum wage.

Crane and Koelsch will meet again in the Assembly chambers at 7 p.m. tonight for a forum hosted by the Juneau League of Women Voters, KTOO and the Juneau Empire.

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