Editorial: It's time for more modest proposals

Posted: Sunday, October 09, 2005

City leaders can easily learn from the message voters sent in last week's election: They're not willing to buy into capital-improvement projects unless city leaders do a better job of selling them on actual need.

The lesson isn't a new one. Voters rejected the building of a new police station and a Mendenhall Valley high school until both were scaled back. Last week a $28 million aquatic center for the valley and a $76 million airport renovation and expansion project were shot down, though voters were asked to approve only partial funding for each of them through an extension of the city's current 1-cent sales tax.

The valley pool is a worthwhile venture, but residents did start to wonder why the Juneau proposal cost so much when Petersburg is managing to build a new pool for less than a third of the price. Some residents were also troubled by the knowledge that this was just the beginning of a much larger and more expensive project, which ultimately would include a library, community meeting space, a running track, a two-court gym and a wood floor for yoga.

If voters are going to pay so much for a community center, the city needs to look at cutting back part of the aquatic components and see if it can fit more of the other items into the initial project. Besides making more economic sense, the wider range of uses would also help create a broader base of support.

Airport planners also need to consider scaling back their project by perhaps dropping the proposed covered parking garage, which would have cost about $18 million. They also need to look at which parts of the airport upgrade are really needed.

Supporters of the project should also put more energy into educating the public about why this project deserves approval. Early on, airport officials noted the leaky roof and shortage of space, but most voters aren't clear about why additional space is important. Much has been made about the importance of improving the airport to keep the capital in Juneau, but many voters obviously weren't convinced that making room for concessions inside the secured area and adding a second baggage carousel were going to quell the call for a capital move.

The Juneau Assembly should act on Assembly member Randy Wanamaker's recommendation that voters be polled on why they voted down these two projects. The city would do well, too, to survey legislators and other seasonal residents to find out what the Juneau International Airport needs to make it an efficient and convenient portal into the capital.

The Assembly has before it a great opportunity to retool both projects to reflect the community's wishes and the true needs of airport users and valley residents. And in the future, leaders should avoid pitching the deluxe projects of their dreams and instead come up with more modest proposals that don't require two elections to pass.

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