Making Juneau an affordable place to live was at the center of a debate between the city's two mayoral candidates Thursday afternoon at the Prospector Hotel.
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Mayor Bruce Botelho and challenger Brad Fluetsch spent nearly an hour and a half discussing taxes, affordable housing, a road out of town and other hot-button local issues for the small crowd consisting primarily of senior citizens. The debate was sponsored by the Retired Public Employees Association Southeast Chapter.
The municipal election is Oct. 3.
Fluetsch, a financial advisor and first-time political candidate, said socioeconomic indicators show Juneau is growing at a slower rate than the rest of the state and represents just 19 percent of the state's work force.
"Juneau is the leader of the Southeast community," he said. "We must change. We must grow."
The high cost of living in the capital is forcing many young families to move and is keeping entrepreneurs from investing in the community, Fluetsch said.
"Nobody can afford to live in Juneau," he said.
Botelho said he has been working with the Juneau Assembly to address affordable housing and he would continue to do so if re-elected.
"We're working toward a specific affordable housing summit by the end of the year," he said.
During a question-and-answer period, much of the time was devoted to cost of living and taxes.
"Right now people are very sensitive to changes in the tax code," said Gary Miller, chairman of the Retired Public Employees Association Southeast Chapter.
"The tax requirements are a major concern for us because most of us are on a fixed income," Wally Deboff said.
The senior sales tax exemption was the topic that piqued the interest of many of those in attendance. A proposal earlier this year to repeal the exemption was still fresh in the minds of many of the association's members.
"At this stage we do not need further revision of our sales tax code," Botelho said. "I think the issue right now is closed."
While Fluetsch does not support repealing the senior sales tax exemption, he does support altering the present tax structure, he said. With the high cost of living in Juneau the sales tax should not be taxing essential items such as food, heating oil and water, he said.
"We have to make Juneau affordable for young families and taxing food is offensive to those families," he said.
With the 5 percent sales tax divided into three parts, Fluetsch suggested doing away with the temporary 3 percent sales tax and increasing the permanent 1 percent to as much as 7 percent to cover the economic needs of the city. The city has another 1 percent sales tax that rounds out the 5 percent used to fund city services.
While the candidates agreed on a number of issues, including the construction of a second channel crossing and the development of city land, Botelho and Fluetsch don't see eye-to-eye on the building of a road out of Juneau.
Botelho was asked why he voted in favor of the road at a special Assembly meeting earlier this year and then came out to oppose it later by speaking at a press conference regarding a lawsuit against the road.
"I concluded the road meets the law," he said, adding that projects that comply with the law are not always the wisest undertakings.
"I have major reservations about the road," Botelho said, citing Berners Bay as an example.
Building the road would reduce the cost of living in Juneau and make housing more affordable, Fluetsch said.
Construction of the road out of Juneau might be the topic that ultimately determines the outcome of the election, Miller said.
"Because Juneauites are so evenly split I think that will make a big difference," he said.
Sharon Lowe said the debate brought up more questions than answers for her about who would win her vote.
"This is not a clear-cut election for me," she said. "A lot of times I take a side or two, but this one is going to be hard for me to make a decision on."