By Win Gruening
In a few short months, the pandemic upended the world as we knew it. Our routine of work, school, travel, grocery shopping, medical visits and social interaction has been interrupted by a blizzard of bewildering directives. State and city mandates can supersede each other and change monthly.
Conflicting information coming from every direction makes it easy to lose sight of the importance of maintaining a balanced approach that minimizes risk to individuals but also allows individuals to make choices.
Eventually, this pandemic will wane, or an effective immunization program will be implemented. But, until there is an effective treatment or vaccination, we must accept that COVID-19 cases will increase. To minimize hospitalizations and deaths, efforts should be focused on mitigating risk to the 60-and-older population age group.
Let’s consider the real possibility of living for some time in a post-COVID-19 world where we have not eliminated the virus but learned to live with it. In that future environment, our choices become clearer.
As part of a massive government response, Congress passed the CARES Act — a $2 trillion relief package from which Alaska has received over $1.5 billion in aid — much of it still undistributed.
Short term, this is necessary and helpful. But it won’t last. Government resources are limited, and trillion-dollar aid packages are unsustainable. Ultimately, history will judge us on how we individually and collectively rebuilt our lives and economy. We cannot do this if businesses are closed, our schools are shuttered or people stay hunkered down indefinitely.
We should expect that government resources will be conserved and used in the wisest way possible. This is not the time to be taking on major new initiatives that are not directly aimed at economic recovery or mitigating pandemic risks.
With the possibility that flexibility of uses in CARES Act monies will eventually be authorized, there will be a natural inclination to use these funds for projects and programs that would not otherwise be funded or that do nothing to lower the cost of living or contribute materially to the economy.
Certainly, government must continue to govern but efforts should be focused on the emergency before us while other lesser priorities should be put on the back burner for now.
While some argue that the $15 million bond issue proposed by the Juneau Assembly is a way to provide employment and bolster the economy, additional property taxes will be required. Shouldn’t we be exploring ways to lower taxes and the cost of living? Alaska’s Department of Labor July Economic Trends pinpoints Juneau as having the highest overall cost of living of all the major urbanized areas in the state — driven specifically by costs in three areas: groceries, housing and transportation.
Next year, with little or no state or federal assistance, CBJ will only avoid large budget deficits if cruise visitation returns to somewhat normal levels. But is that realistic? Probably not, and then, we’ll be facing even higher property taxes.
Some believe since CARES Act funds are “free” it doesn’t matter what we spend it on. Unfortunately, often, projects and programs started with ‘free” money become a tax burden to city residents as the ever-rising annual operating costs eventually must be funded by Juneau taxpayers
This is especially true of various child care/pre-K programs now being proposed by the Juneau Economic Stabilization Task Force. Clearly, expanded child care — not Pre-K — a requirement as long as schools are not completely open. But is there a plan to reduce subsidies for this program once our schools fully reopen? Or will this just become a new social program to be funded from property taxes?
It’s easy to throw money at arts and child care programs, spiffier parks and recreation infrastructure but when will we make headway on some of the “messy” issues that the Assembly seems averse to address? Mitigating the effects of downtown homelessness, the malodorous impacts of Juneau’s landfill and our ever-increasing water and sewer bills come to mind as ways to improve our lives today.
Maintaining a healthy economy and quality of life while lowering the cost of living will do more to encourage COVID-19 compliance than any city, state or federal mandate.
Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.