Right now, there is a push from the mayor’s Economic Stabilization Task Force to increase the City and Borough of Juneau bond debt to help the economy during this time of economic crisis. Increasing our debt is exactly the opposite of what should be done.
I was fortunate during my time on the CBJ Assembly to work with mayors who understood the importance of fiscal responsibility. Mayors Sanford, Becker and Koelsch were deeply respectful of the population they served. They understood that elected officials should be extremely careful spending taxes that are collected from our citizens.
While these mayors were in office, our bonded debt decreased from a record high to the much more manageable and appropriate levels we see today. In fact, the debt is so low now that the same people who put us into that exorbitant debt are willing to do it again. And again, they want to “bundle” a bond package together instead of letting individual projects pass or fail on their own merit.
The current proposal is for the CBJ to sell a large sum of bundled bonds and incur millions of dollars of debt to build a new city museum, new city hall, and a new Juneau Arts and Culture Center (overwhelmingly voted down on the last municipal ballot) in conjunction with a remodeled Centennial Hall, as well as other projects. The argument is that because our debt has been paid down low enough, Juneau now has the bonding capacity to put more charges on the CBJ credit card. Just because the interest rate is low right now doesn’t mean we should borrow. Thinking like that occurs in a vacuum. It also puts us back in the hole it has taken years to dig out from.
The number of cruise ship passengers in Juneau this year is projected to drop from over 1.1 million to 4,000. That means about $25 million fewer tax dollars for the CBJ. Does anyone believe we will see a million cruisers next year? I highly doubt it.
North Slope Crude stands at just over $40 a barrel. That low price means more State cuts also hurting Juneau. Whether folks want to acknowledge it or not, Juneau is still an oil town.
People are finally starting to go back to work after months of being told to stay home. Working citizens are great for our economy. Our employment numbers are still down; however, and will remain so for quite some time in the future. Adult children have been moving back in with parents because they can’t afford their own place without jobs.
Jobs for those teens interested and able to work are hard to come by right now. Our youth have been sent home from school and will not go back to a five-day schedule this fall. Parents may be required to reduce their work hours or quit altogether to watch the younger children since daycare is both hard to find and troublesome to manage with masks and social distancing. A truncated week of school attendance will undoubtedly have adverse economic impacts, as well as social impacts.
Rather than increase tax liability and pass that liability on to multi-generations of Juneau citizens, the CBJ should minimize our debt. There is also plenty of spending to do on our current infrastructure, like repairing the leaky roof at Mendenhall River School for example.
Or fixing roads that are in bad shape, paving the dirt roads we still have and working on a joint agreement/facility with Waste Management to reduce our solid waste footprint and odors from the landfill.
Or maybe we could get ahead of the water and sewer infrastructure so our rates don’t keep increasing. Or, why not reduce property taxes?
These are just a few ideas about where we could spend money sensibly on our current infrastructure rather than increasing our debt obligation to create new infrastructure.
Times are tight right now for many of our neighbors, and our municipality. Creating more debt when we are already short on money and facing the highest level of economic uncertainty the community has faced since the AJ Mine closed is the wrong thing to do. Keeping Juneau affordable into the future is the right thing to do.
• Jerry Nankervis is a former member of the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly and a past candidate for the Alaska House of Representatives.