The sales tax question gives us another chance to get it right

Posted: Wednesday, August 03, 2005

BENJAMIN BROWN

The Alaska Observer

Juneau is a great place to live, in no small part because the city does a lot to provide for our high quality of life. From an excellent array of parks and community recreation facilities - including Eaglecrest Ski Area, the swimming pool, and the Treadwell Ice Arena - to libraries and an outstanding Juneau-Douglas City Museum, we are truly blessed with a great infrastructure.

The basics, however, are important as well: Our water and sewer lines could use some expanding, and our community needs to address its long-term landfill needs. (I should disclose here that I work for the Department of Environmental Conservation, which sometimes helps to fund expansions of such services.) Transportation improvements, which across Alaska are often funded by state or federal funds, also require the allocation of local public revenues, whether for better roads or crucial upgrades at the city-owned airport.

The recent debate over how to spend the earnings of the 1 percent additional sales tax brings to the forefront the competing needs we share as residents of the capital. Should we address the projects likeliest to help improve the quality of life across the board, such as utility upgrades, before devoting funds to recreational assets? What about the distinction between existing assets that have high levels of actual demand and use, and those that are new, and have not had the benefit of years of community involvement? Can we realistically or responsibly conceive of a water park at this point in time?

There are (at least) two issues on the table. First, should the 1 percent sales tax be extended, and if so for how long? Second, on what specific projects and programs should we expend these dollars? Most people seem to support the sales tax, but the community seems to have rejected the proposed nine-year plan to dedicate these funds, perhaps because it seems unwise to try to earmark money that far in advance. A five-year extension seems more reasonable, a compromise between having to make the tough choices every year or two (which would impart undesirable volatility to planning for public amenities), and excessive dedication which ties the community's hands.

As far as what projects to fund, I'll return to my basic assertion - sewer and water line extensions that create the opportunity for more affordable housing and enhance the overall quality of residential life in Juneau should top the list. Transportation enhancements are in a similar category. These projects distinguish themselves in a way that makes it fair to query the voters about them separately. Either linked or as two separate packages, water-sewer and transportation could reasonably be presented as their own ballot items.

We can separately ask voters to evaluate projects to enhance recreational opportunities in Juneau. I think Eaglecrest is likely to be supported by a majority because of an involved planning process that envisions greater self-sustainability. The Mendenhall Valley pool, by contrast, would be a new, additional competitor for scarce operating support. It is regrettable that a private-sector offer to help meet the need for a swimming facility available to the public in the Valley was not met more receptively. With concepts that fall into the recreational sphere, a project-by-project vote may be the best way to go. This may articulate the debate in a way that is impossible with numerous concepts lumped together, but that may not be such a bad thing.

There are projects that are beyond the five-year time frame that can not even fairly be considered right now. This is yet another reason to let the voters take up what is in the here and now, or at least the fairly close and soonish.

Ideally, the monies raised by the 1 percent sales tax in the next five or so years will enable concrete steps forward that help make it easier for people to get to and from Juneau, and easier and safer to drive downtown and in all of our neighborhoods. Swimmers, skaters and skiers can all look forward to ensuring the community does its part to help people in their search to have fun. The existing downtown pool likely will continue receiving generous city funding, which expense is a known budgetary quantity. And we can all keep considering how best to approach the Valley swimming pool concept.

Juneau is fortunate to have intelligent enough voters that we have made many great choices about how to make life in Alaska's capital delightful. This vote on how to spend additional sales-tax revenues is one more chance for us to get it right.

• Benjamin Brown is a lifelong Alaskan who lives in Juneau.



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