Repair funds are badly needed

Posted: Thursday, May 11, 2000

When your roof leaks, you get it fixed. But when your kid's school's roof leaks, sometimes someone just ends up putting out a bucket.

Maintenance of schools and other public buildings hasn't always gotten the attention it needs, due to limited funds. But some of the problems will now be taken care of, thanks to a measure approved as the Legislature finished up its work last week.

But it will only be taken care of if we come up with part of the cost.

House Bill 281 proposed a $300 million bond package, including $5.4 million for work on Juneau schools.

Money will go toward a variety of repairs at school buildings including Floyd Dryden, Auke Bay, Marie Drake, Harborview, JDHS and Gastineau. Roofs, floors, gyms and heating systems will be repaired or replaced. There's no question this and other work is needed.

Our legislative delegation tried for more, including money for renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School and construction of the new Mendenhall Valley high school, and we appreciate their efforts. We know there were a lot of competing needs and we also know local lawmakers will try again next year.

The total value of the scheduled repair work is about $7.7 million. The state will cover 70 percent - the $5.4 million - as long as Juneau comes up with the matching 30 percent, which adds up to about $2.3 million.

City Attorney John Corso says the law may only allow funding through a local bond sale. He's still looking at the bill, but he says that's the only way to proceed with any confidence.

Bonds are the traditional approach to funding construction and repair projects.

The city sells bonds, which is somewhat similar to taking out a loan, and uses the proceeds to pay for the work. Property taxes or another source pay off the debt, which includes interest.

Another approach could be a temporary sales tax increase, such as the one that paid for the new police station.

This costs less, because you're not paying off the bond debt. And it spreads around the cost to all residents, not just property owners. In addition, anyone passing through town who buys something here, such as our 600,000-plus summer visitors, ends up chipping in.

But you can't run your sales tax rate too high, or local businesses lose a competitive edge to stores and services in other towns with lower taxes. And since Juneau applies sales tax to food and medicine, folks on the lower end of the income scale end up paying more for essentials.

There are also competing plans for use of the sales tax, such as one before the Juneau Assembly on Wednesday to fund half of $40 million in improvements to Bartlett Regional Hospital.

And, as the city attorney said, bonds may be the only way to legally pay Juneau's share of the cost.

The city election in which funding for school repairs will be considered is in October, so there's plenty of time for such details to be figured out. We expect a good, lively discussion on this and other construction proposals put on the ballot.

In the meantime, given the tightness of the state budget, Juneau should consider the availability of the school repair funds as good news.

While we have to chip in part of the cost, and any construction work causes some inconvenience, we're sure our children will find it easier to learn in a school where the heat works and the roof doesn't leak.

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