The City and Borough of Juneau election this Oct. 3 (voting starts by mail Sept. 17) will include a proposed bond issue for $27 million to partially fund a new City Hall. This same project was on the local ballot last year for $37 million and was rejected by the voters.
This year the city manager and Assembly have reduced the bond amount $10 million by assigning $16.3 million cash to the project this budget year. This has reduced the requested bond amount from last year by $10 million, but increased the total project cost by $2 million ($43.3 million compared to last year’s estimate of $41.3 million).
The CBJ planning process ubiquitously employs the use of “plans” – comprehensive plan, area plans, port plans, etc. In particular, the Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) lists the priority capital projects the Assembly has established following thorough public discussion. The final CIP list for 2024 includes, in part: schools, parks, waste management, streets, harbors, police station, transportation, hospital, water, wastewater, airport, fire control and deferred maintenance – totaling $102 million (CBJ estimate). But missing from this capital plan is any mention of a new City Hall. Apparently, a new City Hall is a not a higher priority than anything prioritized in the CIP, yet its cost already exceeds 40% of all planned city priorities combined.
On July 12 we requested the cost comparison information for this project, but none has yet been forthcoming. The reason given is this information is being “compiled.” As of Aug. 14, CBJ estimated delivery within the week, yet none has been forthcoming as of Aug. 22. When and if these materials are made available, so much the better, but why wait so long? Interesting, that information, which already exists and was used to make this decision, cannot be shared because it is being “compiled.”
General reasons given by CBJ for a new City Hall are:
(1) Some rental costs will be avoided. (If so, will ownership costs be less?)
(2) Maintenance costs of a new building will be less due to use of durable construction materials – if so, the current City Hall is made of concrete – is concrete not durable?
(3) The voters didn’t have enough information last year, so the city has budgeted $50,000 for a campaign to convince on the proposed $27 million bond ($43.3 million total cost and climbing).
However, our request for that information has gone unanswered for four weeks pending “compilation.”
Until CBJ cost information can be independently verified, the new City Hall proposal is not timely. The pro-forma financials used by the CBJ to justify the decision to promote a new City Hall should be independently corroborated and verified prior to voter consideration of the suggested bond issue. How else can do we know a new City Hall is a wise choice?
A total of $16.3 million in cash has already been budgeted this year. That, plus $27 million in bonds should be rigorously analyzed and verified independently before obligating the taxpayer to 20 years of bond payments while other priorities go unfunded. It is only prudent to consider our municipal capital needs for the next 20 years prior to bonding for a new City Hall. You – the property taxpayer – will be on the hook for that bond.
Our Juneau cost of living is the highest in urban Alaska. A major portion of that cost is taxation. Nice things are nice, but how can we reduce the cost of living while having facilities that are “good enough?” Voters deserve a detailed and verified analysis of costs prior to obligating our property taxes for the next 20 years (maybe 30) as our population ages and shrinks. Young people are leaving this community due to the high cost of living. Surely there are ways to reduce our cost of living while maintaining reasonable and functional facilities. The CBJ administration and Assembly have not yet made this demonstration.
• Frank Bergstrom is a Juneau resident with 43 years of experience in permitting, construction, operation, closure, and environmental compliance of underground and surface mines. He has participated in hundreds of public meetings and hearings regarding development projects, and also served on mayor’s AJ Mine Task Force and Juneau Affordable Housing Commission.