Voters in the City and Borough of Juneau municipal election will decide this fall whether to approve $27 million in bond debt to fund the majority of the construction cost for a new City Hall. A similar $35 million measure was rejected last year. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)

My Turn: A viable alternative to a new City Hall

Juneau is being asked to decide on funding a new City Hall…again. There are reasonable arguments both for and against building, however, I can’t support building a new City Hall at this time. The math simply doesn’t add up.

City management has been clear; the existing City Hall needs $14 million of upgrades. Period. And, no matter what the electorate decides, that fact won’t change. However, there’s a missing piece to the CBJ’s argument. If funding the new City Hall ballot measure gains voter approval, the existing building will still need to be repaired. Where’s the funding proposal for that and why isn’t the manager’s office and Assembly including that information as part of their educating the public campaign?

What we have is a City Hall building that’s been so poorly maintained it is unsellable in its current condition and unaffordable if improved. That is, unless the CBJ sells the building at a considerable loss. I doubt this critical point has been missed by city management. So will the existing City Hall become the next Mt. Jumbo Gym? Or is there another plan for the building we don’t know?

Across the street from the existing City Hall is the Sealaska building which is much larger and has been impeccably maintained. It is assessed at $6.9 million. Our city leaders tell us our new assessments are now accurate and unimpeachable. Therefore, if you wanted to buy the existing City Hall building, which we’re told is worth $4 million, and the building needs $14 million in repairs and upgrades, then the actual cost to an investor, before the existing City Hall building can be occupied, is $18 million. What investor would do that? The numbers don’t add up. Juneau taxpayers are either going to spend $14 million, or $55 million, which is the combined cost of repairs and cost to build new. In the future, will Juneau voters be asked to float a bond to repair the existing building for some unspecified CBJ use?

One other point, we’ve been told taxpayers will save $820,000 per year the CBJ spends on rent by building new. Does that actually save us money? If you directly pay down the $27 million bond and recover the $16 million general funds using the $820,000 a year in rent savings, it will take 52 years to pay for the new City Hall. That’s just about twice the lifespan of a new roof and four times the lifespan of carpet. It doesn’t include interest, inflation, office upgrades or maintenance. And are we to believe a new City Hall will be maintained any better than the old one? That’s not likely. Experience tells us the CBJ continually fails to properly maintain its facilities, such as City Hall, school roofs, Centennial Hall, etc.

There is good news; if funding a new City Hall fails voter approval a second time, the Assembly has already set aside $16 million in cash, and can repair and upgrade the current building with no additional taxes or mill rate increases. The Goldbelt building has 24,000 square feet of vacant space available which can be used to house displaced city staff while repairs and upgrades are under way. And thanks to the Assembly, we even have an extra $2 million to cover temporary relocation costs as the existing City Hall is repaired, modernized and refitted. That math actually works.

• Bruce Abel is a third-generation Juneau citizen, father, husband and past president of the Juneau Chamber of Commerce. He is self-employed and owns several local businesses.

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