My turn: Now is the time for Juneau to be bold

Posted: Sunday, August 31, 2008

Fuel costs are at all-time highs, and winter is coming. Affordable housing and child care are still unattainable for many, food is becoming more expensive, and we just suffered through a 500 percent immediate increase in electrical costs. In times of financial hardship, we should be able to depend on our elected officials to make common-sense decisions that maximize our city's resources.

Not so, this week.

With a majority of the Juneau Assembly voting to spend $500,000 from the Sales Tax Budget Reserve on a sculpture of a whale, we forfeited an opportunity to benefit the public good and showed our constituents where our priorities really are.

Governments tax their citizens in order to provide essential services that could not otherwise be performed adequately or economically by the private sector. When a government imposes a tax on its people, it is forcibly taking money to be spent in ways it believes necessary for the city to function.

The city of Juneau maintains police and fire protection, roads, buses, harbors, and an airport. We provide water, sewer, and wastewater treatment. We manage schools and parks. Although we may not always agree on the amount to which we should fund these projects, most Juneau residents agree that these are acceptable functions of our city government and are willing to pay sales and property tax in order to fund them.

It is the duty of the elected official to be a moral steward of this money. We must listen to our neighbors, pay attention to economic data, and ponder the average household's expenses heavily as we vote "aye" or "nay."

When all indicators point to an economic downturn, we must tighten our belts. We must make the tough, unglamorous decisions to say no to requests that do not meet the criteria of "essential services." We must rank the many legitimate, worthy requests and draw the line at a point within our means. Sometimes we have to look like the bad guy to our friends and stand up for the little guy who can't stand up for himself. That little guy couldn't attend the Assembly meeting because the combination of driving from Mendenhall Valley and paying a baby-sitter simply cost too much.

This is how a democratic society that functions in a market economy should act. We protect the economy by stimulating it, not squandering funds collected by force from its citizens. We find a responsible way to help our neighbors stay in Juneau so they can continue to work here, fish here, and buy groceries or homes or Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots for their kids here. If they can afford to do those things, then they will begin to have the peace of mind about their pocketbooks and extend a charitable hand out - without being forced - to their neighbor, their church, their school, or their favorite cultural project, which just might be a bronze whale.

Proponents of the whale sculpture told the Assembly that "now is the time to be bold." I agree - but to me, being bold sometimes means saying no.

We have the opportunity to say no to this project again on Sept. 8 and again when the rest of the promised $1.3 million comes before us. There is so much to do in this capital city to retain its economic and political strength. Saying "no" when appropriate is a good place to start and an excellent way to strengthen our character and exercise being bold.

• Sara Chambers is a city Assembly member and Juneau resident.

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