This photo shows sample ballots from the City and Borough of Juneau for the Oct. 6, 2020, municipal election. Voters will be asked to vote on two ballot propositions, one to establish a commission to review the city charter and one issuing $15 million in bonds for infrastructure projects. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

This photo shows sample ballots from the City and Borough of Juneau for the Oct. 6, 2020, municipal election. Voters will be asked to vote on two ballot propositions, one to establish a commission to review the city charter and one issuing $15 million in bonds for infrastructure projects. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Voters face $15M question in upcoming election

Two ballot propositions will go before voters in October

Editor’s note: Ahead of the Oct. 6 municipal election, the Empire is publishing articles on how the vote-by-mail election will work, the propositions that will appear on ballots and races for Assembly and Board of Education seats. The Empire is also partnering with the League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan organization that does not endorse parties nor candidates. On Thursday, Friday and Sunday, you’ll find candidate bios and answers to six questions that the League developed. In cooperation with the Empire and KTOO, the League will hold a virtual candidate forum at 7 p.m. on Sept. 16.

School board and Assembly members won’t be the only things decided by City and Borough of Juneau voters in October.

They’ll also be asked to consider two ballot propositions. The first asks whether the city should establish a commission to review the city’s charter, the second, which has attracted much more public interest, asks voters to approve $15 million in bonds for infrastructure projects.

[Read about how this year’s municipal election will work and what will appear on ballots here]

The Economic Stabilization Task Force, established by Mayor Beth Weldon to help guide the city through the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, suggested in June the city consider issuing general obligation bonds to pay for already needed infrastructure projects.

“The benefits of infrastructure investment are two‐fold,” stated a June 25, letter from the task force to the Assembly. “(1) the immediate infusion of capital and consequent workforce mobilization, and (2) the long‐term—multi‐generational—facilities that are constructed.”

The task force didn’t suggest how much should be issued, or what projects should be given priority. The city manager’s office and the Assembly came up with a list of projects that could be funded and eventually landed on parks, roads and schools as the three key areas to be addressed by the bonds. On Aug. 4, the Assembly voted to send a $15 million bond package to the voters.

The package would ostensibly distribute the $15 million evenly, with $5 million each going to parks, schools and roads. But the big-ticket item in the package is repairs to school roofs, which city officials speculate will cost more than $5 million. Funding in the bonds is being kept open specifically so extra funds can be added to certain projects as needed.

But bonds have to be paid for, and exactly how much this package is going to cost Juneau taxpayers isn’t an easy question to answer.

That’s because there are a lot of factors influencing city taxes that are outside of city control, namely school bond debt reimbursement from the state.

“This is one of these things where people would like a simple picture and like a simple answer but it’s not,” Watt told the Chamber. School bond debt reimbursement was “really, the gorilla in the debt service room.”

[Assembly sends $15 million bond package to voters]

Going into the pandemic, the city had healthy cash reserves and was getting ready to “retire” or end payments on another set of debt payments. That means the city has the ability to take on more debt or it could lower the mil rate, the percentage of tax on assessed property.

But without knowing how much the state is going to reimburse the city, its hard to say if taxes will go up or down even without the bond package, said City Finance Director Jeff Rogers.

Under the original school bond debt agreement between the state and municipalities, the state would pay 70% of the total cost of the project. But as the state’s finances have decreased, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has cut state payments to cities as a way of reducing overall state expenditure. For Fiscal Year 2020, Dunleavy tried to cut school bond reimbursements entirely but the Legislature restored those payments, though at a lower rate, only 50% of the state’s portion. This year, however, those payments were cut entirely after Dunleavy said federal relief money would cover the “vast majority” of vetoed funds.

“I cannot tell you with perfect accuracy (whether taxes will go up or down) because there are these factors out of our control,” Rogers said in an interview. “It is no longer very rational to think the state is going reimburse 100% of what they owe us.”

Issuing the bonds will of course cost Juneau taxpayers money, Rogers said, “the question is, is the rest of our debt trending downwards?” And the answer to that is bound up with the school bond debt reimbursement question.”

City officials have been assuming a reimbursement rate of 50%, Rogers said, but it is likely the state’s financial circumstances are likely to be worse off next year. Currently, federal relief money has to be spent by the end of the year. There are bills in Congress to extend that date and issue additional relief, but it’s not clear if and when those bills might pass.

Rogers said the city has a healthy general fund balance but payments to old school bonds have to be made, even without the state paying its portion. That means the Assembly will have to find a way to make those payments likely through a combination of general fund money and some amount of property tax, he said.

Rogers said many people have asked him if voting for the bonds means property taxes will go up, but the answer just isn’t that simple.

“It’s a little bit un-finance-Director-like, but what I’ve told people, my friends and family, if you think the projects are meritorious, then go vote yes. If not, then go vote no.”

Chartering familiar territory

Proposition 1 asks Juneau voters if a nine-person Charter Commission should be elected to review or amend the city charter, CBJ’s foundational document. It’s a question that, according to the charter itself, must be put to the voters every 10 years.

According to a history of Juneau’s charter prepared by former City Clerk Laurie Sica, voters have repeatedly voted against a charter commission by a strong majority. The proposition says the commission would review or amend the charter but that’s not the only way the charter can be changed. An Assembly vote of at least six can send an amendment to the ballot at any time, but the question must ultimately be approved by voters. The charter’s history provides vote tallies for all the amendment votes from 1970-2010, including ones that failed.

Speaking to the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 3, City Manager Rorie Watt called the charter, which turned 50 in June, “essentially our Juneau constitution. It covers everything from how many Assembly members we have to our procurement practices.”

According to Article XIV of Juneau’s charter, the commission would be made up of “nine qualified voters…chosen at the next regular election or at a special election” and elected on the same basis of representation as assembly members. The commission will have to vote to adopt rules and procedures and with a vote of five of its members can propose an amendment to the charter.

Once an amendment is proposed either by the Assembly or a charter commission, the election process is the same. According to the charter, a special election would be held between 60 and 120 days after the vote or at the next regularly scheduled election to fall within that time period.

The charter’s guidelines for the commission are fairly lax, other than the commission has to vote on rules and guidelines, meetings must be open to the public and “costs, fees and other expenses…shall be paid by the municipality. The Assembly shall provide compensation for commission members.”

[School repairs get priority in bond package]

• Contact reporter Peter Segall at Follow him on Twitter at @SegallJnoEmpire.

More in News

(Juneau E
Aurora forecast for the week of Nov. 27

These forecasts are courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute… Continue reading

A car drives by Mendenhall River Community School on Back Loop Road on Thursday morning. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Woman, two children struck by vehicle while crossing road near Mendenhall River Community School

Victims in stable condition, initial investigation shows driver not at-fault, according to police.

“The Phantom of the Opera” is screened with a live musical soundtrack at the Gold Town Theater in April. Three of the musicians are scheduled to perform Sunday during two screenings of the 1928 silent film “The Wind.” (Courtesy of Gold Town Theater)
This weekend’s lineup at the Gold Town Theater really blows

Xmas Bazaar Xtravaganza nearly sold out already, but seeing “The Wind” to live music a breeze.

Scant patches of snow remain at the base of Eaglecrest Ski area on Wednesday despite snowmaking efforts that occurred during the weekend, due to warmer temperatures and rain this week. The opening date for the ski area, originally set for Dec. 2 and then delayed until Dec. 9, is now undetermined. (Photo courtesy of Eaglecrest Ski Area)
Eaglecrest opening delayed again, target date now TBD

Warm temperatures and rain thwart efforts to open ski area on Saturday.

Work crews continue removing hundreds of truckloads of debris from Zimovia Highway since the Nov. 20 landslide in Wrangell. (Photo courtesy of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)
Clearing work continues at Wrangell slide; fundraising grows to help families

Juneau, with several thousand pounds of food collected in drive, among many communities assisting.

The front page of the Juneau Empire on Dec. 4, 2005. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Empire Archives: Juneau’s history for the week of Dec. 10

Three decades of capital city coverage.

Staff of the Ketchikan Misty Fjords Ranger District carry a 15-foot-long lodgepole pine near the Silvis Lake area to a vessel for transport to Juneau on Nov. 30. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Together Tree departs Ketchikan for Governor’s Residence in Juneau

Annual Holiday Open House featuring 21,350 cookies scheduled 3-6 p.m. Dec. 12.

Female caribou runs near Teshekpuk Lake on June 12, 2022. (Photo by Ashley Sabatino, Bureau of Land Management)
Alaska tribes urge protection for federal lands

80% of food comes from surrounding lands and waters for Alaska Native communities off road system.

Ron Ekis (wearing red) and Dakota Brown order from Devils Hideaway at the new Vintage Food Truck Park as Marty McKeown, owner of the property, shows seating facilities still under construction to other local media members on Wednesday. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
New Vintage Food Truck Park makes year-round debut

Two of planned five food trucks now open, with covered seating and other offerings in the works.

Most Read