My Turn: Proper use of public funds?

Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011

A recent proposal by the City and Borough of Juneau Manager to give two private businesses over a million dollars in public revenue captured my attention and caused me to wonder, why?

Embedded in the draft capital budget for our community is a proposal to give the AJ and the Franklin cruise docks $1.2 million for maintenance.

The city Manager has proposed allocating public funds to these private enterprises.

The city Assembly must now decide whether to sanction the use of public funds to maintain private businesses.

Alaska’s Constitution at Article 9, Section 6 requires that all spending of public funds be for a public purpose.

Spending public funds derived from cruise passengers to maintain private docks may pump up the economic margins of these private businesses, but what exactly does the public gain? Where and when does the public subsidy of private business end if our community embarks on this path? Should all waterfront businesses that serve cruise passengers get a little financial bump each year from the public treasury?

Acquiring a right-of-way or easement to continue sea walk construction across private property may make sense and justifies use of public funds in payment to these private businesses. But simply deflecting public funds to private businesses without an obvious public benefit is potentially illegal and bad policy.

There is a rich irony at work here where the city manager’s proposal allocates public funds for private benefit without a consequent enhancement to the public. The very businesses that now seek a public hand-out for their private gain are among the most adamant opponents of the cruise passenger fee. Having lost that battle when the public voted to impose a reasonable fee on cruise passengers, these businesses are now engaged in a shameless effort to grab funds harbored in the cruise passenger fee fund for their own benefit.

This privatization of gain at public expense is all too common these days. The public should weigh in by letting your elected officials know that you expect public funds to be used for public purposes, not private benefit.

• Geldhof is a lawyer and the author of the local passenger ship fee ordinance in Juneau as well as the statewide cruise passenger initiative that was adopted by Alaska voters in 2006.

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