My Turn: Where are Juneau's priorities?

City's method of funding large projects just does not work

Posted: Friday, July 06, 2007

Our method of funding capital projects, such as the new high school, is broken as evidenced by the 21 percent voter turnout during the June 13 school bonds election.

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There were 3,882 (43 percent) fewer voters than in the October 2004 election that approved the school. More than 1,000 more people in 2004 voted against the high school being built at all than voted for the completion of the auditorium and track.

Why didn't people vote this time? Have they just given up?

Were people as surprised as the Juneau Empire that the city, school board and superintendent haven't a clue as to the costs or timeline of the new auditorium and track? Was it wrong to assume when people voted for the money to fund these projects that they were voting for a completed project?

After being told for seven years that Riverside Drive would be 70 percent funded by the state, are people surprised that they will be paying for it out of sales taxes or property taxes to the detriment or deferment of other projects?

Many voters are under the assumption that when voting for money to fund a project they are authorizing a specific amount to build a project and not authorizing unlimited funds to complete the project as proponents want. Many people, such as myself, who voted for the high school in 1999 and 2004 and voted no in June, were not against the school but voted in protest of the process and the lack of priorities, credibility and accountability by proponents, estimators or the borough.

People are now assured if the bids come in high for the auditorium and track that components will be removed rather than more money sought.

Why is this not the case on every project?

The usual excuse is it will cost more later. If that is valid people should buy that million dollar yacht now even if they can't afford to buy or operate it as it will cost more in the future. The possibility that they could do without the yacht or even a smaller boat never seems to enter the conversation.

Many people believe if one questions spending on education or recreation that individual is against motherhood and apple pie. I love them both but I have to question the Juneau School Board's priorities. Why were the vocational programs the first items cut and we have a $5 million track for the athletically gifted? What about the 40 percent dropout rate. Will the track help the 40 percent of dropouts stay in school or prepare for life after school? Vocational courses may go a long way toward encouraging kids who do not have the desire to attend college, or those who will never be able to afford college to stay in high school and go into a trade. After all, the vast majority of people starting or even finishing high school do not finish college and, as exhibited locally, trade persons are very well paid, have full benefits and are in demand.

The truth is that the problems are not only with school and recreation projects but any major project in Juneau. The estimates seem to always be low compared to bids such as the 2005 hospital remodel, which was estimated at $14 million and four months later bid at $20 million-plus. Rising costs cannot account for a 43 percent increase in four months. No cuts were made, but the city "found" $6 million to fund the project. When the police station was built, a committee was formed to cut items but it still got built with all the bells and whistles with no price reduction.

The valley swimming pool is the next project. I believe the pool is a good idea and will vote for it unless we run into the same problems. We know prices have gone up and that contractors are busy so those items should be factored into the estimates. No excuses. Let's know for sure if the state will fund a portion of the project and exactly how much. If this is not possible, let's prioritize components of the project so if the bids come in 30 percent higher or the state doesn't fund a portion, people know what to cut to fit the money the voters appropriate.

Let's have no more approval of conceptual projects based on faith and trust. It doesn't seem to work out.

• Tim Whiting is a Juneau resident.

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