Former Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch in 2018. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)

Former Juneau Mayor Ken Koelsch in 2018. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)

My Turn: Assembly needs to retreat

We might not be privy to what the Assembly’s agenda is, but we need to begin with the premise that it wants to do the right thing. It is our job as citizens to help determine “the right direction” starting with the people here and then help make it happen.

Start with Taxation 101.

Taxes fund our local government so it can provide essential services we all value — like public safety, schools and roads. Property tax is calculated in mills, equivalent to one-tenth of a percent. A mill rate of 10 means that your property tax is equal to 1% of your property’s assessed value.

Do you remember what the millage rate was at the start of the 2023 year? It was 10.56.

In May, the Assembly lowered the rate from 10.56 to 10.16. The Juneau Empire headline read, “Assembly votes to lower property tax rate” and Assembly members proudly proclaimed that this was the lowest millage rate since the late 1990s.

Yes, the Assembly did lower the mil rate to 10.16, but what they couldn’t brag about was the fact that even though they lowered the millage rate, because property assessments rose so steeply — 13%, our tax bills actually went up an average of almost 9%.

But did you know that the Assembly’s 0.4 percent decrease (10.56 to 10.16) was actually less than what Juneau taxpayers achieved when they rejected $27 million in bonds for a new City Hall in October?

That action effectively lowered the coming year’s debt rate nearly a half mill from 1.20 to 0.73 (0.47 percent).

What is happening to that money that does not need to be allocated to paying debt service on $27 million? Will it stay in the pockets of Juneau taxpayers or will it be collected for an Assembly “priority” that is not an essential service or just be collected because actually lowering property tax is not a thought process?

The CBJ has done an excellent job accumulating reserves (mostly by over-collecting sales and property taxes) they can disperse as they see fit without the permission of voters. But it is the citizens’ money.

There is $16.3 million that has been appropriated for a new City Hall. That is your money.

There is at least $7 million appropriated for Capital Civic Center funds; with another $10 million designated from passenger head taxes- That is your money.

There is projected to be $31 million in unrestricted 2024 budget reserves collected mainly from property and sales taxes. That is your money.

At the end of October (thanks to cruise ship passenger spending and inflation), the CBJ treasury set a record for third quarter sales tax collection of $21 million. That increase is your money.

And then there’s property tax. $64,484,700 was the budgeted value for FY24 for roughly 14,000 parcels. A total of $64.2 million collected so far (almost $5 million more than the projected $59.3 million collected in FY23). That increase is your money.

The senior population is now a larger percentage of the population than the under-18 population. What is needed to keep seniors and working families in their homes and attract young people to Juneau to balance out our population? There’s just one answer — we need to make Juneau more affordable.

So what sense is there in raising property tax on housing every year when we carry between $50-$60 million in restricted and unrestricted budget reserves? None. If this community wants to grow, it first needs to address the basic needs of its current population. First, stop over-collecting taxes. Second, stop over-collecting taxes, Third, stop over-collecting taxes. Make it affordable to live here. The 10.16 mill rate will be reduced by 0.47 as the debt service declines from 1.2 to 0.73. Why not lower the mill rate even further to keep the population we have here housed and attract new population? The Assembly during its retreat this weekend needs to actually ask for a plan to return over-collected taxes or a plan to use the over-collected tax for lowering property taxes for the next year or two.

It is Juneau taxpayers’ money that is filling the unrestricted reserve budget coffers well above normal levels; it is Juneau taxpayers’ money that is being appropriated to accounts for projects that voters have rejected. Leave the money in the taxpayers’ home budgets where they can use it to pay their mortgage or rent, or use it for food, medical and transportation costs. Making Juneau a more affordable place for the people living here is a great starting place for any budget.

• Ken Koelsch is a former mayor of Juneau.

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