Column: Closing the pool is a desperate answer to CBJ budget woes

It wasn’t that long ago the Juneau residents debated on the value of building a second community pool in the valley. Now we’ll be facing a new controversy — what to do with the downtown August Brown pool. Construction costs to correct building deficiencies over the next 10 years are estimated at $5.5 million, adding weight to the argument that the pool should be closed to offset shortfalls in the borough’s operating budget. That solution is not only short sighted, it falsely portrays Juneau as a poverty plagued community.


During the past 10 years CBJ has spent tens of millions of dollars repairing, renovating or rehabilitating half a dozen schools as old as the Augustus Brown pool. So we should be well versed on the relative price tag to keep older buildings in working order.

On the other side of the short-term memory ledger is the fact that five years ago the assembly voted to spend $1.2 million to add two swim lanes to the Dimond Park Aquatic Center. This happened after bids to build it came in under the engineer’s estimate. It wasn’t necessarily a bad decision, but at the time no one discussed the idea of putting that money aside for the future needs of the older facility.

And we should remember the heart of the lengthy community debate about building the valley pool. Proponents prevailed mostly on their arguments that the one we had was overcrowded and a well-designed valley pool might possibly generate enough revenue to pay its operating and maintenance costs.

In 2006, a year before construction of the valley pool was approved by voters, it logged 102,000 visitors, excluding spectators. Last year both pools saw a total of 109,000 visitors. That means opponents of the second pool were right – the taxpayer subsidy is much higher to operate two pools.

Now assembly member Randy Wanamaker is wondering if Juneau’s population base is too small to support two pools. He’s posed this question only in terms of money — what can we afford given the borough’s current and projected budget shortfalls — without considering the original concern that overcrowding negatively impacts the quality of user experience.

The answer isn’t to close the pool without debating raising additional revenue. At the CBJ assembly meeting in April, Bill Leighty, who is an avid swimmer at Augustus Brown, asked that everyone pay more to use to the pool “to close the subsidy gap.” Others suggested property tax hikes, which could be across the board or in the form of reducing the senior tax exemptions.

Wanamaker has consistently opposed raising taxes as a way to balance the borough’s budget. He’s not alone. But like many of those who think we’re already taxed enough, Wanamaker is a strong supporter of building the road up Lynn Canal. Which means he’s not opposed to someone else’s tax dollars being spent for our benefit but prefers not to tax ourselves.

And by leaning toward mothballing a usable public facility he’s not recognizing the similarity to a neighborhood of foreclosed homes remaining vacant during tough economic times. It depresses the community while nudging city officials toward desperate measures to reduce the public debt.

Look at Detroit and Chicago. The motor city is currently cutting off water services to residents who are two months behind paying their bills. In 2008, Chicago privatized collection from parking meters, a deal which effectively taxed city users even more as the new corporate managers raised rates while depositing all the revenue into their private bank account instead of city coffers.

Desperation implies poverty is around the corner. But the poverty rate in Juneau is six times lower than Detroit’s and a quarter of Chicago’s. We have a median household income approaching $80,000 compared to $27,000 and $47,000 in those two cities. And home values and ownership rates tell the same story. We can afford two pools.

Raising taxes isn’t a matter that isolates all other values from money because the quality of life is related to community generosity and overall concern for the people who live around us. So even if we don’t use the pools, we need to remember many of our neighbors do, and we’ve got a deep reserve of private wealth that should be tapped for their sake before closing the Augustus Brown pool.


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