Commentary: Sales tax proposals offer three separate decisions

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005


The Alaska Observer

The recent back-and-forth about how best to spend the city's optional 1 percent sales tax has resulted in a nice range of options to be presented to voters at the municipal election on Oct. 4. Instead of one list of projects lumped together, the Assembly saw the wisdom in breaking potential sales-tax projects into three separate categories. This is an approach advocated by many former Assembly members and community leaders. Unfortunately the extension is still for nine years, longer than voters may deem wise.

As readers will recall, at one point the Assembly wanted to have voters give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to a list of projects at the same time as they would presumably approve extending the life of the 1 percent sales tax for nine years. Back in June, the projects and the very lengthy sales-tax extension were bundled together. This approach, however, was met with quite a bit of criticism from a broad section of the community, and the Assembly went back to the drawing board. This is a fine example of the democratic process at work.

The proposal that voters will now face will allow for three separate decisions. The Dimond Community Center is a stand-alone with a stated price tag of $26 million, although some have questioned if this is really an accurate figure. Improvements at the airport are the second item, with a local contribution of $20 million, which will match significant revenues from several other sources to accomplish a long-overdue renovation. The third component includes several things, ranging from a new chairlift at Eaglecrest to upgrades to local sewer and water lines, and from a downtown parking garage to dock and harbor upgrades.

Some of those who were in favor of the all-or-nothing approach have since questioned me as to why I came out, in this space, against the Dimond Community Center (which was designed to include a water-park facility). I have no basic predisposition against this project, or against expenditure of public funds for recreational purposes. As I've said many times before, I am a huge supporter of Eaglecrest. But the difference between Eaglecrest and the water park is that the former already exists, and the latter is still a dream waiting to be realized. There is a further very significant difference in the costs of helping either facility with the current opportunity to dedicate sales-tax revenues. Eaglecrest wants $800,000 to build a new lift to open up more of the mountain for more of the ski season, which will yield more revenue and help make the ski area more self-sustaining. The water park would be a wholly new enterprise, one without any plan for eventually enhancing its financial independence. Moreover, there is the issue of redundancy. Plainly speaking, we already have a swimming pool downtown. While it may not be the most convenient thing in the world to have to drive downtown to swim, everyone who drives to Eaglecrest to ski seems to deal with the geographical necessity of doing so pretty well. Building a new library facility in the valley is one thing, but a water park is something completely different.

Beyond the issue of competing recreational opportunities, things like sewer and water, and crucial transportation infrastructure improvements, are definite priorities. Our airport and road system are among the most critical community assets when other Alaskans assess the viability of Juneau as the capital city. When people experience difficulty or major inconvenience coming or going, they become frustrated and less supportive of Juneau's capital status. The Assembly is wise to put the airport funding before voters. It's beyond argument that Juneau needs more housing, and the water and sewer extensions that voters can support in the upcoming election are an essential means of making more housing a reality.

In addition to getting to vote on projects by category, and not in one bundle, there are three Assembly seats on the October ballot. The next few weeks will see the candidates for one at-large seat and for the districts 1 and 2 seats explaining themselves to voters. This is an excellent opportunity for Juneau residents to get to know these worthy individuals who are sacrificing themselves in their bids for public office. Given the size of our community, many of us will already know at least a few of the Assembly candidates. But don't let prior affiliation make all the difference; instead get to know all of the candidates if you have a chance. They'll be speaking at public functions, and more than likely going door to door. This is your chance to see who they are and to size up just what each of them might bring to local government service.

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

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