(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

(Peter Segall / Juneau Empire File)

Opinion: Fund the schools, respect the voters, lower property taxes

The Assembly should reduce the actual amount of household property tax collection below last year’s.

  • Ken Koelsch
  • Thursday, March 9, 2023 6:08pm
  • Opinion

Juneau is a wonderful place to live. We have unparalleled scenery, over 100 trails for recreating, clean water to drink, clean air to breathe and northern lights to keep us up at night. Our groceries, housing and medical costs; however, are among the highest in Alaska.

Like other Juneau property owners, we received our property tax assessment notices this week. The valuation was the largest gross and percentage-wise increase in the 55 years we have lived in our home. Is it time to move someplace sunnier where our retirement dollars will go further? Children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors are powerful anchors to stay in Juneau, but something has to give, and the Assembly has some crossroad decisions to make.

CBJ has carried a large unrestricted fund budget surplus reserve. Without voter approval, the Assembly has appropriated general funds from these reserves for: new city hall $6.3 million, affordable housing fund $5 million, Auke Bay seawalk $5 million, Glory Hall $2.3 million, Southeast Alaska Independent Living $2.4 million, Sealaska Heritage Art Campus $1.5 million, Eaglecrest gondolas $2 million, UAS boat lift and yard $2 million, Augustus Brown pool additional $3 million, CBJ technology $1.5 million, Capital Civic Center design $2 million, vote-by-mail $700,000 and $300,000 for unexpected downtown parking fund shortfalls.

The Juneau School District is asking the CBJ Assembly for $2.5 million to address its 2023 fiscal year deficit. The debt centers mostly around increased costs for transportation, summer school classes, and RALLY (JSD after-school program for children).

The JSD does not have the authority to tax. The Assembly does. So, while it is tempting to pontificate over the JSD deficit, the Assembly should accommodate the $2.5 million request and then address other current issues, like its imperious response to election results and Juneau’s high cost of living.

In recent years, two municipal propositions have failed: A $4.5 million grant for a new JACC in 2019 and $35 million for a new city hall in 2022. The Assembly’s response has been to create “set asides” from the budget.

After the 2019 JACC proposition was defeated, promoters combined their failed effort with voter-approved Centennial Hall renovations and re-labelled the joint project the “Capital Civic Center.” Now, they want the Assembly to set aside another $5 million from tax proceeds in addition to the $2 million in “planning” already appropriated for the project, which is currently estimated to cost $75 million. These funds don’t count the $10 million appropriation from the passenger fee “head tax” account last year and or another $1 million from passenger fees being considered this year.

Another set aside is $6.3 million for a new City Hall. Last fall a $35 million bond proposal to fund this failed. CBJ has fewer employees working in their facilities because of unfilled jobs. To attract some workers, CBJ is proposing accommodating work from anywhere three weeks out of the year and work from home two days a week. How do these suggested workplace changes factor into building a $41 million brick-and-mortar city hall?

When discussing taxation, it is shameful to hear some say it is “…only $10, $100, $1,000 dollars you might save” were the Assembly to lower the property tax. In addition to groceries, housing, medical and transportation costs, property and sales taxation costs also factor in our high cost-of-living. These costs consume the vast majority of many residents’ living wages. To help address Juneau’s high cost-of-living, the Assembly should reduce the actual amount of household property tax collection below last year’s.

By June 30 of this year, the unrestricted fund reserve balance is projected to be $30.1 million. Use the set aside funds and the unrestricted fund reserve balance to help fund our new budget especially 1.2 mil debt service. Juneau taxpayers deserve a break.

The Assembly is elected to represent their constituents, not rule over them.

Not accepting elections results has been a hot topic in the national news for the past few years. Let’s acknowledge our election results and move on as we gather community consensus. Funding expensive projects rejected by the voters while residents are forced to cut back their standard of living to pay their property taxes isn’t just.

• Ken Koelsch was a teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School 1969-1996, port director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection 1996-2014, served on the CBJ Assembly 1997-2003 and served as mayor 2016-2018. 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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