The existing 70-year-old Juneau City Hall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

The existing 70-year-old Juneau City Hall. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

Accusations of arrogance, deceit by Assembly on new City Hall vote are inaccurate and unfair

In the last two months there has been a steady drumbeat against the bond issue on a new City Hall, mostly from voices who have weighed in against an array of public projects over the years. It is every citizen’s right to voice their opinion and vote as they choose, but what I find disheartening are those who have accused the Assembly of “arrogance,” of “profligate spending,” or deceit.

The decision to place the bond initiative on the ballot was a result of numerous public meetings at both the Assembly committee and full Assembly level. Separate meetings considered the question of setting aside $10 million for the project and the bond measure itself. No one testified at the public hearings against these proposed ordinances — certainly none of the individuals who now express outrage at the Assembly’s actions.

There is a deep sense of alienation in American politics today and Juneau is not immune. There is a certain collective PTSD from the pandemic and its immediate aftermath. There is anxiety about Juneau’s economic future. People are rightly concerned about their tax burden. But to vote against the bond measure (against “city hall”) out of anger is misdirected. Juneauites deserve a consolidated space in which the public’s business can be conducted and Juneau’s public servants deserve a clean, safe and functional work environment.

The Assembly’s unanimous decision to ask the voters to approve the bond measure for City Hall is borne not of arrogance, but of a genuine belief that there is no fiscally responsible alternative.

Here are the facts as I see them:

The current City Hall is 70 years old

Renovations would require removal of asbestos, revolving relocation of staff (doing the removal in stages), replacing steel piping and the like

The best estimate for a renovation is $14 million, a cost that does nothing to reduce the more than $800,000 spent annually on lease space for satellite city offices in the downtown core

Aside from City Hall, city employees are located in four other downtown buildings under lease. Leases for a majority of these spaces will not be an option in coming years because of new ownership and/or redevelopment. There is no scenario in which city employees will not have to be relocated.

Some have asked “If things were this bad, why did the Assembly wait so long?” To be fair, the Assembly has examined this issue over the last several years. That’s why a larger bond issue was on the ballot last year. Bluntly, previous Assemblies could well have anticipated the very blowback that is occurring now. But there is a point, as Mayor Merrill Sanford once observed, “when all the easy decisions have already been made.”

Many of us have confronted this kind of dilemma in our own lives. Here’s one example: our rusted-out Toyota has venerably served us for 150,000 miles. It’s long since lost its warranty, and the estimate for repairs of the suspension and a transmission rebuild easily exceed the value of the car. Making the investment may stretch out the life of the car another 50,000 miles, but it’s not a sure thing. It was great as a starter vehicle for a small family, but now only half of the family can fit in it. Is it time to look at purchasing a new vehicle? If not now, when?

In this case, the answer is straightforward: the time is now. Let’s build an efficient, purpose-built structure that can effectively, cost-efficiently and accessibly serve Juneau citizens for decades to come. The Assembly made the difficult decision to actively support a new City Hall based on a belief in Juneau’s future and in a facility to serve that future. I agree with that decision and ask you to join me in voting “Yes” on Proposition No. 1.

• Bruce Botelho is a former mayor of Juneau and former state Attorney General.

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