Juneau has mixed reaction to big capital budget

Mental Health Land Trust property stalled in Senate

Posted: Friday, April 09, 2010

A flush state capital budget includes more than $50 million in projects for Juneau, with the possibility of more being included later.

The budget included some top local priorities, with the possibility of others receiving funding later.

Among projects getting allocated money are a $10 million renovation of Johnson Youth Center and a $7 million renovation of the Governor's House.

It also included $4 million for the Sealaska Heritage Institute, pending an agreement with Tlingit-Haida on the property known as the downtown "pit."

"Overall, in the capital budget Juneau fared very well," said Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

But what has really got members of the Juneau delegation concerned isn't a project that's been left out of the budget, it's one that was included.

A planned construction of a $50 million office building on Mental Health Land Trust property on Juneau's waterfront has stalled in the Senate Finance Committee. Instead, the committee and chairman in charge of the capital budget, Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, included $2 million in general fund money for "planning and design of a new state office building in Juneau."

Egan and other members of the Juneau legislative delegation say that may mean that other legislation to develop the Mental Health Trust's subport property will not be allowed to pass the Senate's Finance Committee.

"I take the $2 million to mean that we are not going to get all of the funding for the subport building, however the process isn't over yet," said Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau.

The plan previously had been to construct the building with borrowed money and Trust funds, with lease payments from state agencies providingprofits that would go back to Trust beneficiaries.

Stedman has not returned phone calls about the subport bill, which has languished in the finance committee for a year. The bill passed the House of Representatives last year. He failed to return another phone call Thursday.

Egan said he and all members of the Juneau delegation have attempted to sway the powerful committee co-chair on the subport proposal.

"His issue is that Mental Health (Trust) and the state are two different things," Egan said

"To me, the Mental Health and the state are one and the same, it's all the people's money to some extent," he said.

Stedman's proposed $2 million would be used for a site survey and to recommend a land purchase. Egan said he was skeptical land could be found in Juneau.

"I don't know of a heck of a lot of land in downtown Juneau in the core government area that's available," he said.

Other items in the budget not considered to be Juneau-specific projects are also included in the capital budget, and are likely to benefit the local area directly or indirectly.

Funding for training land-based firefighters to fight marine fires was provided for the Alaska Fire Chief Association. It will likely assist numerous communities, but the training will be in Juneau.

There will also be $5 million in matching grants available for harbors, which Juneau will be able to seek.

Several budget items would provide money for the Alaska Marine Highway System, along with authority to spend $60 million previously allocated for a new Alaska-class ferry. The statewide-Marine Exchange of Alaska is slated to receive $600,000.

Rep. Cathy Muñoz, R-Juneau, was unavailable for comment Thursday.

The size of the Senate's proposed capital budget is receiving criticism from members of the Senate Republican Minority, four Republican lawmakers excluded from the bi-partisan Senate Working Group caucus and others.

"I think it is almost breathtaking they can spend this kind of money when we'll be broke in the not-too-distant future," said Sen. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage and Senate minority leader during a Thursday morning press conference.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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