Juneau Assembly members and city administrators meet to discuss budget matters involving the Juneau School District on Feb. 7. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Juneau Assembly members and city administrators meet to discuss budget matters involving the Juneau School District on Feb. 7. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Opinion: Assembly ignores voters, ramps up spending and taxes

Capital City citizens and businesses have endured double-digit increases in property taxes over the last several years, yet the Juneau Assembly is doubling down on a spending spree and raising taxes.

Does our Assembly care about the public they serve?

City officials assert that the budget is “balanced,” and that revenues and expenditures are not projected to be materially different from the prior year.

But that ignores the substantial changes within recurring revenues and expenses as well as one-time expenditures that can be funded out of reserves. So, while the city may, in fact, end up with a “balanced budget,” it’s not because revenues actually equal expenses; it’s because the city can choose to use its cash reserves (or, in some cases, use debt) to finance their deficit spending.

This has serious implications for taxpayers who ultimately are responsible for paying off bonded indebtedness, or replenishing city reserves via sales and property taxes levied by the city.

Over the years the city has developed a bad habit of over-collecting property taxes and underestimating sales tax receipts. The resulting excessive reserves have allowed the Assembly to finance all sorts of projects and activities that would never pass muster with voters.

The Assembly’s ongoing obsession with building an arts and culture center connected to an expanded Centennial Hall is a perfect example. The “Capital Civic Center” continues to receive millions of dollars despite the fact the arts center component was soundly rejected by voters in 2019.

Nevertheless, in December 2021, the Assembly appropriated $2 million toward engineering and design of the project, and then passed a resolution in March 2022 allocating up to $10 million in funding from cruise passenger fees. In 2023, another $5 million was added making the total amount appropriated or committed for the project since inception $19 million, all without the approval of the voters who will be taxed to operate and maintain it.

This year the Assembly is considering giving the project a $4 million “advance” on their passenger fee commitment. Some view this as “free money” since it comes from cruise passengers. But other uses that it displaces should be a higher priority. Electrification of the city cruise docks, for example, will be shortchanged if $10 million is squirreled away for the Capital Civic Center.

The Assembly’s CCC priority is astonishing given that it lacks electoral support, any justified return-on-investment and is beyond the financial scope for Juneau’s population. Especially when the Tlingit and Haida Central Council recently announced plans to build a large event center that “can be a gathering place for major events like Celebration, the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament and Native Youth Olympics.”

The 2021 $2 million design study was supposed to nail down the CCC cost, but no one seems curious why no answers are forthcoming.

Voters also rejected a $35 million bond issue for a new City Hall, but $16 million in prior appropriations remain buried in city accounts that aren’t being used to reduce the budget. Why not?

But that’s not all.

Other projects totaling $14 million are being considered for community grants by the Assembly in the FY25 budget. A partial list of these projects raises questions about how they will reduce Juneau’s cost of living or expand the economy.

• $4 million: Land purchase for Association of Education for Young Children (AEYC)

• $2 million: Homeless/low-income housing for Gastineau Human Services

• $2 million: Homeless/low-income housing for Juneau Community Foundation

• $500K — Operational support for AEYC – Parents as Teachers Program

• $500K: STEAM/Fab Lab for Sealaska Heritage Foundation

• $500K+: Studies/research for JEDC and Travel Juneau

• $218K: Operational support to Juneau Arts and Humanities Council

Some projects may be worthwhile, but with all the available vacant buildings it’s fair to ask why we need any new buildings. Some requests have no detailed plans for completion or for self-support, and will likely return year after year for more money. That isn’t an effective use of the Community Grant process.

The Juneau Assembly seems incapable of saying no. Instead, they have announced a $2 million increase in property taxes to help fund their largesse.

Will they ever draw the line and when will voters decide enough is enough?

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for KeyBank in Alaska, Win Gruening became a regular Opinion Page columnist for the Juneau Empire. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is involved in various local and statewide organizations. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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