Assembly makes right call on school, capitol plans

Posted: Sunday, April 24, 2005

Vantage Point By Robert Hale, publisher of the Juneau Empire.

Thumbs up to the Juneau Assembly, which last week funded the city school district to the state's cap with its approval of a $20 million budget for fiscal year 2006.

With the city's funding, and that provided by the state and other sources of revenue, the school district's budget for the coming budget year will be $46 million.

Perhaps more important than its budget appropriation, the city may consider funding items that weren't included in the school district's budget requests, three of which are transportation for homeless children, adding crossing guards and reinstating some funding for community schools. The cost for those three items would be about $55,000.

Not included in the school district's budget is $18,000 it wants for student activities, and Superintendent Peggy Cowan is hoping the city can see its way clear to fund the activities with revenues from the city's 1 percent sales tax.

Tight budgets are, for the most part, a way of life for schools in Juneau, in Alaska and elsewhere. The city's funding of the Juneau School District up to the state cap is something the district really needs to count on each year but is something it knows it can't take for granted. The $20 million the city has agreed to provide for fiscal 2006 is one less worry the district will have for the coming school year.

And thumbs up to Mayor Bruce Botelho, at least for the time being, for halting plans for a new capitol building in Juneau. In light of crumbling support for the project, financially and otherwise, it was the right thing for Botelho and the city Assembly to do.

There'll be more to this story in the coming days, but for now the capitol project has hit some major snags, and it could be that Juneau's status as the capital city is imperiled.

What's happened since early this year is this:

A design competition for a capitol building that would sit atop Telephone Hill in downtown was not at all embraced by the community. The four designs - and the one on which the city ultimately decided as its lead concept - were largely seen as too futuristic and not in keeping with Alaska's heritage.

The design project also seemed to fuel the ire of legislators who held (or who do hold) one of three opinions: that a new capitol building isn't needed; that a new capitol is needed, but not in Juneau; and/or that the capital needs to be moved if not to Anchorage, to the Mat-Su Valley.

And, much more recently, the capitol project was dealt its most serious blow when the city had to return $940,000 that had been appropriated by the state's Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, funding that Gov. Frank Murkowski says he knew nothing about.

At this point the city needs $5 million it doesn't have to get the capitol project under way. Looming even larger is what appears to be an evaporation of support for the project on the part of state legislators and the governor himself.

If the Legislature is unlikely to pony up some serious funding - at least $50 million or more of the $100 million total - for a new capitol, and if the project doesn't have the support of the governor, this deal may be as done as it's ever going to be.

In all of this there exists another threat not only to the capitol project but to Juneau's status as the capital city, and that is the effort in the Mat-Su Valley to construct a legislative building that ostensibly would make it unnecessary for legislators to have to travel to Juneau to conduct the state's business. That's not a perceived threat. It's the real thing.

Where the capitol project goes from here is anybody's guess, but it doesn't appear it's headed for fruition, at least not anytime soon.

• Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com.



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