Juneau mayoral candidates Beth Weldon, left, Norton Gregory, center, and Saralyn Tabachnick introduce themselves to the Rotary Club of Juneau during their luncheon at the Baranof Hotel on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Juneau mayoral candidates Beth Weldon, left, Norton Gregory, center, and Saralyn Tabachnick introduce themselves to the Rotary Club of Juneau during their luncheon at the Baranof Hotel on Tuesday, Sept. 25, 2018. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Mayoral candidates debate city’s role in arts, child care

Candidates offer perspectives on Best Starts program, new JACC

As candidates approach the end of a campaign season that has involved a great deal of agreement between candidates, the three active mayoral candidates offered different perspectives on a few topics Tuesday.

Norton Gregory, Saralyn Tabachnick and Beth Weldon appeared at the Rotary Club of Juneau’s mayoral forum at the Baranof Hotel on Tuesday and discussed a wide range of topics. The fourth mayoral candidate, Cody Shoemaker, was absent.

The city’s role in child care

The intertwined issues of child care and early childhood education have been major topics in this election cycle, and the trio of mayoral candidates were asked what the city’s role should be in addressing the child care shortage.

The conversation centered around Juneau Best Starts, a program that would give child care providers financial incentives. A funding initiative nearly appeared on the ballot that would have committed $2.8 million from the city to the program, but the City and Borough of Juneau voted to keep it off the ballot. The initiative would have raised property taxes.

Gregory and Weldon were both on the Assembly until just before that vote, but resigned in order to run for mayor. They both agreed that they would have liked for the voters to decide on whether to commit the money. Gregory said he believes the Assembly’s job is to facilitate the conversation between the city and the community about Best Starts and other child care options.

“I felt that the decision was far too great for the Assembly alone to make that decision on behalf of our whole community when it’s going to affect each and every one of us in this room,” Gregory said.

Weldon said she’s still not sold on Best Starts, because the money from that program goes to providers instead of giving breaks to families that need it. She also said she’s not convinced that children from lower-income families would get the access they need to programs even with Best Starts.

Primarily, Weldon said, the Assembly must be very careful with the money it commits because there’s very little room in the budget. It would have been impossible to cut $2.8 million out of the budget, Weldon said, and the city would have had no choice but to raise property taxes to fund the program.

Weldon said there are still other ways for the city to help without committing millions of dollars and increasing property tax, like using city facilities (empty classrooms at schools, for example) for child care and funding pre-kindergarten programs.

Tabachnick said she’s also in support of leaving the Best Starts initiative up to the voters. She said she’d like to see more collaborative programs such as the Head Start program through Central Council Tlingit and Haida Tribes of Alaska and Juneau Pioneer Home that brings children and elders together.

She agreed with Weldon that the city can offer some of its facilities to child care, and said she’d like to see the Assembly make child care a priority.

“The city could be playing a much more active role in investing in and encouraging innovative solutions for alleviating our child care crisis,” Tabachnick said.

The Best Starts organizers sent out a questionnaire to all of the municipal candidates, and all four mayoral candidates listed the program as a high priority in 2019.

The city’s role in the arts

Tabachnick also said she believes the city should have more of a role in building Juneau’s arts community. She rattled off a list of accolades and developments in the city’s arts community in recent years, saying the city needs to embrace this strength.

“The arts help us diversify our economy and attract more people to our capital city, bringing more money year-round to Juneau,” Tabachnick said. “I think CBJ plays a very important and focused role in the arts.”

She said the prospect of a new Juneau Arts and Culture Center is enticing, and would like to ask the voters what they think about the city providing some funding for that. That was another initiative that nearly made this fall’s ballot, and the Assembly voted to keep that off the ballot as well.

Gregory in particular was vocal about not funding the new JACC with public money. He said he supports the idea of having a new JACC — and even cut a check to the project — but said it shouldn’t be the city’s burden.

One of the proposals on the table for the Assembly was for the city to commit $12 million in bonds to the project while also taking over management duties for the building. When he was still on the Assembly, Gregory said he would rather commit money to essential services such as the city’s fire and police departments, and he repeated that at Tuesday’s forum.

Weldon said she’s in the same boat.

“I believe (the new JACC) will be an economic boost that we need in the community,” Weldon said. “With that being said, I agree with Mr. Gregory that we have to be a little cautious because I don’t support it currently with its $12 million price tag and the fact that we own the JACC.”

When she was on the Assembly, Weldon even proposed an alternative where the city would have committed less money to the JACC and it would have remained privately owned. The Assembly voted that measure down as well.

The election is next Tuesday, Oct. 2, and the mayoral hopefuls are set to participate in the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s luncheon at noon Thursday at the Juneau Moose Lodge as well. People can RSVP to that luncheon at www.juneauchamber.com.

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or amccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.

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