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Opinion: The budget balancing act

  • Thursday, May 12, 2022 2:47pm
  • Opinion

By Win Gruening

For those of you tired of reading about Juneau’s (CBJ) municipal budget, my column this week will not provide any relief. But for those of you who are interested in the city’s finances and how your taxes may increase, it may shed some light on how the budget process is progressing.

The city began budget deliberations facing a projected $3.4 million deficit, after raising taxes on property owners who already are struggling with huge tax assessment increases in the last two years.

To help residents to understand this better, CBJ staff recently published an online budget simulator that provides an opportunity for anyone to formulate their own city budget and submit it to the Assembly. Dubbed “The Balancing Act”, the simulation tool allows residents to make budget suggestions as well as learn more about CBJ programs and the trade-offs between providing city services and fiscal stability. Users can also save their work and share it with others who can also edit it before submitting it to the Assembly.

I spent about 30 minutes experimenting with it, and, without raising taxes or requiring the use of savings, I was able to balance the budget.

Regrettably, that does not seem to be the direction in which the CBJ Assembly is headed.

In a previous column, I outlined some of the challenges the Assembly faces this year in fashioning a budget. Facing a multi-million-dollar deficit, a stagnant economy and population, declining school enrollments, and the expiration of federal and state pandemic support, the Juneau Assembly has some critical choices to make that will affect Juneau taxpayers for many years to come.

In spite of that, leading up to formal budget deliberations, Assembly members have focused an inordinate amount of time prioritizing and discussing pet projects that have questionable public support and will cost in excess of $100 million. I am referring to the Capital Civic Center mega-project which is being estimated at around $75 million and the new City Hall at about $27 million.

Neither project has a firm price tag and it appears that funding for the CCC project, at least, is being cleverly designed to avoid requiring voter approval. The plan is to cobble together a combination of grants from foundations, the Federal government, and the city treasury. Acutely aware that voters have previously declined to provide money for the one of the components of Capital Civic Center, the Juneau Arts and Culture Center (New JACC), the Assembly’s funding strategy eliminates the pesky public from the calculation.

Even if CCC construction funding is finally obtained, it begs the question: what will the annual operating costs be to operate a facility of this size? The inevitable subsidies, which could amount to millions of dollars, are essentially an unfunded mandate that will never receive voter approval.

The city is also considering adding a third project to this list, a new city museum which would be located closer to the cruise docks. According to the museum folks, the current facility is old, too small, and needs to be more accessible.

Remember, now, none of these projects have been built, public support and costs are unknown, and yet the Assembly has already appropriated over $8 million to move the first two projects along.

Last week the Assembly tentatively approved eliminating sales tax on food purchases and proposed raising the city sales tax during the summer season from 5% to 6% to partially offset the $6 million hole it created in the budget. This won’t be good news for Juneau seniors who already were exempted from sales tax on food but now would pay a higher sales tax on everything else.

Which brings me back to the CBJ online budget tool. If it’s possible to balance the budget without raising taxes, why isn’t that the Assembly’s goal instead of adding to the deficit this year and building projects that will increase the deficit even more in the coming years?

If there are enough legitimate online budget submissions, City Finance Director Jeff Rogers says the results will be compiled and shared with the Assembly Finance Committee.

This just might be a good way to send a message to your elected assembly members.

• 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.

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