City and Borough of Juneau’s city manager, Rorie Watt, speaks to a crowd of people as they enjoy a slice of lasagna at the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon on Thursday afternoon. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)

Watt’s up: The city manager talks city budget and upcoming ballot initiatives

Lasagna with a side of ballot initiatives.

City and Borough of Juneau City Manager, Rorie Watt, was the star of the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon on Thursday afternoon and there was no shortage of topics to speak on nor a seat to spare at Juneau Moose Family Center. Watt spoke to the crowd about the final city budget, things to know for the upcoming municipal elections and the community climate around Juneau’s city government’s decisions.

[Candidates file for this fall’s local election]

“Criticism of local government is a sign of engagement and effective local government,” Watt said.

Watt, who has served as city manager since 2016 and has worked with CBJ for more than 20 years, started by addressing one of the leading issues in the Juneau area: the housing crisis. He said issues around housing and development are a big topic for the CBJ Assembly, but said he asks for “support, not criticism” in the Assembly’s process and timeliness.

“All the easy land has already been developed,” he said.

[Housing issues dominate city committee agenda]

He said the CBJ Community Development Department has particularly seen an onslaught of criticism recently and asked members of the crowd to “help change that” and noted that the tasks it faces “are not easy.”

With the upcoming municipal election, Watt took the time to also speak on some of the things set to be on the ballot, including the referendum to eliminate the requirement Juneau property buyers disclose the purchase price and the five-year extension of the temporary 1% sales tax that would fund projects like child care assistance, building maintenance projects and adding to the Affordable Housing which in total would cost around about $60 million.

[Initial ‘shopping list’ for 1% sales tax extension drafted]

He also focused largely on a proposed new city hall downtown. Voters will have their say on the roughly $40 million project in two forms — one is through the vote to extend the 1% sales tax, which would provide over $6 million for the project. The other would be a vote for a general obligation bond to cover the rest of the cost of a new city hall.

Watt said the ballot initiative is “going to be a hard lift,” but said if the public does not choose to pass it, “there is a cost of doing nothing.”

The city pays around $800,000 per year in rent to remain at the current location across the street from Marine Park, Watt said and it is a cost that will continue to grow in the future as the 70-year-old building, with rusty pipes and “a touch of asbestos” under its carpets, will need to undergo a variety of repairs to maintain it.

He said if Juneau’s municipal government is planning on being around for the long haul, it should own the building it is working out of rather than paying rent each year indefinitely.

“If you want to be somewhere forever, you should own your own building,” he said. Watt opened the floor up to members of the crowd for questions, which ranged from update questions on the status of Capital Transit’s Mendenhall Valley Transit Center, to concerns about the conceptual building design of the new city hall building and the future of the Norwegian Cruise Line’s plan to build a new dock for its ships, to which Watt replied with “the ball is in NCL’s court.”

Jodi Garza, the chief administrative officer at Alaska Seaplanes and a board member of the Greater Juneau Chamber of Commerce, attended the event because she said she was interested to hear Watt speak, but wished he would have talked more about the budget and answered questions more directly.

“I feel like he just moved around answering all the questions,” she said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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