Community members packed the Assembly Chambers on Wednesday night to hear mayoral candidates Karen Crane and Ken Koelsch speak on the issues. Overflow at the Juneau League of Women Voters candidate forum had to listen to the discussion on the radio in an upstairs room of city hall.
In his opening statement, Koelsch made it clear he was against the city even having a special election for mayor.
“I felt it was best to wait until October,” he said. “It wastes the hard-earned money of Juneau taxpayers, money that could’ve been used for streets, services and schools.”
But since the majority of the assembly — including Crane — voted to have the election, Koelsch said he’s stepping up, and his campaign will continue to focus on the issues.
One issue that the two candidate do not agree on is senior sales tax. The assembly passed an ordinance in September restricting the senior sales tax exemption. Crane was among the members who supported the reductions.
When asked if she’d rethink her position, Crane said, “When we look at the fact that in a very few years, 20 percent of our population will be seniors, we just could not continue to afford that amount of property loss.”
She said it was an issue of fairness.
“As a senior, I still expect to have my roads plowed, I still expect to have the police to come, I still expect to have water and sewer services,” Crane continued. “All of those services need to be provided and I want to provide full funding for education. We’re not going to be able to do all of those things without changes in some of the revenue.”
Koelsch said he opposed the senior sales tax restrictions.
“I think that we made a covenant with the seniors that if you stay here you will not be paying sales tax when you hit the age of 65 and on,” he said. “I respect the seniors enough that if they wanted not to take that exemption, they didn’t have to. We could’ve grandfathered the seniors that were here.”
To combat the community’s growing problem with opioid addiction, Crane said Juneau needed a rehabilitation center. Koelsch disagreed.
“That’s a very, very expensive and cost-prohibitive situation,” he said. “What I would support is getting people to rehab and I think you have to get them into a larger metropolitan area where you can work on that, as opposed to offering that in Juneau.”
Said Crane: “If your son or your daughter or your family says, ‘I need help,’ they need it now. So whether it’s something through the hospital or whether we change how we operate Rainforest Recovery or whether we have one of the nonprofits take this over — I don’t know what the exact answer is — but I know that Juneau needs to be ready to offer assistance when someone says they’re ready for it.”
Seventeen-year-old Yaakoosgé Daakahídi Alternative High School student Sierra Coronell asked what the candidates would do to stop heroin use in the schools, or before it even starts.
“I have friends that are heroin addicts right now that I grew up with,” she said.
After the forum, Coronell said she thinks the candidates don’t “really see the problem, like preventing the problem. I wanted to know what they had in mind to do for that. I feel like I didn’t get my question answered.”
Koelsch supports building a road from Juneau to the Katzaheen River Delta near Haines.
“As the ferry service is reduced and the ferry system loses more and more funding, the Juneau Access road becomes much more realistic and it could be a critical link for Southeast Alaska,” he said. “If the upper part has a hard link, transportation costs will go down. Freeing up ferry service in Lynn Canal especially would help us with the southern part.”
Crane pointed out that the issue is out of the Assembly’s hands and up to the governor and the Legislature. But she said she doesn’t support a road.
“In this fiscal situation I don’t see that we’re going to have a road and a ferry system,” she said. “If we have a road built, it will just further denigrate the ferry system.”
One community member asked the candidates what they can do to make sure all businesses are paying sales tax.
Crane said the city has gotten more aggressive in collecting delinquent taxes than in the past. She said the city hired an additional auditor to ensure the appropriate amount of sales tax is collected.
Koelsch took a harder line. He said the city can do better.
“I think we need to follow up a lot sooner and I think we need to start closing places down a lot sooner and work out how we’re going to collect it,” he said. “And I would be very proactive in working with the finance department to do that.”
The two candidates do agree on several issues. They both support the Housing First project and the idea of an assisted living facility in Vintage Park. Neither thinks it’s a good idea to allow firearms on the university campus, and both said they would support an ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
The special election for Juneau mayor is on March 15. The winning candidate will serve until October 2018.
• Contact reporter Lisa Phu at 523-2246 or email@example.com.