A City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Election ballot sits in a privacy sleeve. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

A City and Borough of Juneau Municipal Election ballot sits in a privacy sleeve. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire)

Opinion: Hard times call for hard choices

No one wants to say that you must do more with less.

  • By Win Gruening
  • Thursday, September 22, 2022 2:31pm
  • Opinion

A recent front-page article in the Juneau Empire caught my attention. It was titled “Southeast Alaska Food Bank asks for help in the face of hard times”. The article described the large increase in Juneau residents seeking food assistance over the past six months. Facing longer lines of people, the food bank is running out of supplies before everyone is served. Contributing to this situation is the general supply chain slowdown along with higher food costs due to inflation that have impacted everyone’s buying power.

Understandably, the food bank is asking everyone for help so that people won’t go hungry.

As the food bank has been forced to raise their prices, its traditional partners, comprised of other non-profits and church groups, are also under increased economic pressure.

Some of this may have been inevitable due to COVID, but it was also predictable, and stands in sharp contrast to some of the priorities embraced by our local Assembly.

Assembly members and city staff seem to be more preoccupied with justifying spending an estimated $42 million on new offices rather than understanding what is happening in Juneau’s lagging economy. There are lots of reasons to build new offices, they say. First, it will save money, they say. Second, it’s being touted as an investment in democracy and the future. Maybe, but struggling families now can’t wait 50 years for the savings to materialize.

The obsession to build a massive arts and culture center also comes to mind. Rejected by voters once, the Assembly seems determined to resurrect it with an even larger price tag. Combined with what were supposed to be fairly modest improvements to the Centennial Hall Convention Center, the total project could now surpass $77 million.

With our declining population and narrow tax base, it’s hard to understand how Juneau residents could possibly support a facility of this size with enough frequency to pay the light bill. That Juneau will attract significant numbers of out-of-town patrons with the community’s high transportation costs and limited hotel accommodations is just a pipe dream.

But that’s not all. A third project is also being considered, a new city museum. Price tag: unknown.

Our Assembly blithely insists these are needed improvements that will enrich our town and make life better for all concerned.

Tell that to the food bank and its patrons.

It’s almost as if the Assembly is unaware that their extravagant spending risks driving more residents either out of town or into the Food Bank lines.

There is another warning on the horizon.

Our school buildings are underutilized as our student counts continue to decrease. Juneau’s “peak” school enrollment was 5,701 in 1999. Based on city forecasts, it will be 4,225 in October 2022 and by 2032, Juneau’s total school enrollment will drop to 3,035, a loss of almost 2,700 students in over 20 years.

With all this as a backdrop, Juneau voters will be expressing their opinion on Assembly spending priorities when marking their ballots in the municipal election occurring now.

For the record, I am not against improving Juneau’s arts and culture facility, its government offices or maintaining our schools. These facilities do play an important role in Juneau’s quality of life and make Juneau a better place to live and work.

But the sponsors of these projects and other costly undertakings would be wise to scale them appropriately to the size of Juneau’s population and the financial ability of its taxpayers. Jacking up property taxes precipitously at a time when our economy is still in recovery isn’t the answer.

And the food bank should be a higher priority than it apparently is now.

Juneau City Manager Rorie Watt, has correctly identified the problem when he stated in his most recent budget message, “…the FY23 budget appears to demonstrate a structural deficit that future Assemblies will need to wrestle with. Going forward, the Assembly must take corrective action to build a budget that pays for itself with current revenues.”

No one wants to say no to someone’s grand project. No one wants to say that you must do more with less.

But someone has to make the hard choices.

If our Assembly won’t, then voters should.

• After retiring as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank 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.

More in Opinion

Have something to say?

Here’s how to add your voice to the conversation.

Mist from Nugget Falls has a prism-like effect in September 2020. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Multiple vehicles line up at the entrance of Waste Management’s Capitol Disposal Landfill in Lemon Creek Monday morning. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
The absence of economic incentives to reduce waste

This week, Waste Management, the Texas based company that owns and operates… Continue reading

Over 200 people attended LunaFest (Courtesy Photo)
Opinion: JPCC owes a huge debt of gratitude to two LunaFest guest speakers

LunaFest 2023 was JPCC’s most successful fundraising event ever.

(Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Education funding is complicated and political

At a recent Alaska State Senate Education Committee hearing at the Capitol,… Continue reading

At Wednesday evening’s special Assembly meeting, the Assembly appropriated nearly $4 million toward funding a 5.5% wage increase for all CBJ employees along with a 5% increase to the employer health contribution. According to City Manager Rorie Watt, it doesn't necessarily fix a nearly two decade-long issue of employee retention concerns for the city. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Opinion: Assessment needs additional oversight

A win in dealing with City and Borough of Juneau is when… Continue reading

This photo shows the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: Deja vu for the Mendenhall Glacier Recreation Area

Three new alternatives don’t go far enough.

In this Nov. 29, 2018 photo, clouds swirl over Douglas Island. (Michael Penn / Juneau Empire File)
Opinion: The Roadless Rule is a misnomer for what’s really happening in the Tongass

The Roadless Rule, as currently comprised with an exception provision, works.

Faith Myers stands at the doors of API. (Courtesy Photo)
Opinion: Psychiatric patient care report could be catalyst for improvements

Will good suggestions get lost in state bureaucracy?

Most Read