Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale smiles for a photo in November 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Assembly member Michelle Bonnet Hale smiles for a photo in November 2022. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

My Turn: Let’s talk about that $50,000 and City Hall

CBJ’s Assembly and administration have been receiving criticism for appropriating up to $50,000 to provide information about the City Hall proposition that will be on the ballot in October 2023.

Why have we done this now, when we voted such an appropriation down last year? What has changed?

Prior to 2022, it was common for CBJ to provide information on upcoming ballot measures. Juneau voters have busy lives and some might not follow City Hall closely, so without such information the ballot box might be the first time voters encounter an issue. That’s a hard place to try to weigh ins and outs and pros and cons of any issue, as our pens hover over the ovals on the ballot.

However, a recent court ruling for another Alaskan city has narrowed the range of information city employees can provide voters without explicit instructions and a financial authorization from the City Assembly. The courts have ruled that even expressing an opinion in an email can be considered advocacy. Last year, the first time we had encountered this interpretation, the Assembly chose not to fund information outreach on both the City Hall ballot measure and the citizen-led measure to repeal property sales disclosure.

It was as if a gag rule was in place. The city manager was not allowed to describe why a new City Hall was needed, could not discuss the cost savings in rent, and could not counter misinformation on social media. At Assembly meetings in the past month or two, people have testified that this appropriation is not needed, that we have a public information officer who can provide this information. No, they can’t, without an appropriation. Staff can’t talk about this at Chamber of Commerce or other meetings. They can’t prepare material describing the need for a City Hall. This is all due to the new narrow court ruling.

I now believe, and clearly the Assembly believes since we voted unanimously in 2023 to appropriate the $50,000, that such an appropriation is warranted for this election cycle.

I learned from last year’s election that providing this information is essential to an informed decision. I still feel that we made the right decision in not appropriating money to oppose the property sales disclosure as that came directly from CBJ residents. However, I think it was a mistake in 2022 to limit staff’s ability to talk about City Hall.

The bulk of the $50,000 that the Assembly has appropriated will not be “new” money. Staff are not going to work overtime or earn extra money providing the information about City Hall. Instead, as with any time-tracking and accounting, this appropriation provides a place for staff to code their time. Approximately $10,000 to $15,000 of the $50,000 appropriation will be used to create and mail information about City Hall. That is the only “new” money the appropriation will pay for. The remainder of the $50,000 will lapse back to the general fund at the end of the fiscal year from the other funding sources staff would have coded their time to.

It is a different measure going on the ballot this year. The bond will be for less, primarily because the state Legislature and governor paid back school bond debt reimbursement that we hadn’t received for several years of budget cuts, money that the state was legally obligated to fund to the city but didn’t. The Assembly chose to use $10 million of that money for a City Hall.

We need a new City Hall. CBJ is renting office space in numerous locations in town; much of this rent goes to out-of-town owners. The current City Hall is an old, repurposed building. Assembly chambers are in the former Fire Department garage. The heating system is entirely substandard. Staff in some of the rented spaces have to deal with failing plumbing.

CBJ has debt capacity, which means that taking on this bond debt for a City Hall won’t raise taxes.

We are the capital city of Alaska. Let’s look like it with a City Hall that matches our status as the capital.

• Michelle Bonnet Hale is a member of the CBJ Assembly.

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