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: Close, but no cigar on meaningful mill rate reduction by Juneau Assembly members

Before beginning my teaching career in Juneau in 1968, one of my favorite summer jobs was supervising the many food and game booths at the largest free fair in my home state of Michigan. Carnival games like tossing rings around the neck of a bottle or basketballs through a hoop were popular, and prizes were always awarded. Many of the “carnival barkers” still used an expression from the 1920s when cigars were given as prizes to encourage fair visitors to try again: “Close, but no cigar.” Cigars were more readily accepted as prizes in the early 20th century than they would be today. Today, if you go to a state fair, you will probably hear, “Close, but no stuffed toy.”

Now let’s talk taxes. At the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) Finance Committee meeting last Wednesday, Assembly member Greg Smith proposed reducing the property tax millage rate from 10.16 to 9.91 mills. It garnered four of the five votes needed to be further considered. Close, but no cigar.

The CBJ Finance Committee eventually settled on dropping the mill rate to 10.04, a measly 1.2% reduction, which passed with seven votes.

Some Assembly members expressed the concern that a more substantial cut was just too “uncomfortable,” as there might be priorities that would require incurring more bond debt in the future. Sorry, not even close.

“Uncomfortable” for some Juneau families was seeing the median home value and corresponding tax bill jump an average of 23% since 2020. If viewed honestly, escalating property values over the last several years will cost the average homeowner over $1,000 more in tax annually while the Assembly’s proposed millage rate “reduction” only pares it back a few hundred dollars

Uncomfortable is the Juneau homeowner coming up with the cash for home maintenance, house insurance, mortgage payments and CBJ property taxes. Landscaping can be put off another year, a new or used car is out of the picture until prices drop, braces or glasses are higher priorities than school activities. Juneau still ranks the highest in urban Alaska for housing , groceries, and medical costs. Now that’s uncomfortable.

In the past three years CBJ has overcollected on our property taxes. For the past three years, CBJ’s two main sources of income (property and sales taxes) have produced millions in additional city revenue over actual budgeted needs. CBJ stashed $16.3 million in an account for a new City Hall, brought up additional debt to pay off, added to our restricted budget reserves, and appropriated most of the rest of the millions to various community requests, some questionable.

The portion of Juneau’s tax millage rate dedicated to debt payment can be reduced drastically and still pay off our scheduled debt. It is past time to give our homeowner working families a break. Dropping the debt millage rate from 1.2 to 0.73 for a mill rate total of 9.69 would lower the average property tax payment by almost $300. Then consider additional reductions that can be offset by tightening spending. A good place to start.

This would be in keeping with past years’ property tax overcollections, the increase in sales taxes due to inflation and cruise ship visitors’ spending, and tens of millions of dollars in reserves and appropriations for large projects that have been turned down by voters.

The Assembly believes they know better than you how your tax dollars should be spent.

Close, but no cigar.

• Ken Koelsch was Juneau’s mayor from 2016 to 2018, U.S. Customs and Border Protection port director between 1996 and 2014, and a local high school teacher from 1969 to 1996.

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