Juneau Looking around the small, pretty Alaskan capitol of Juneau, a first-timer like myself comes to the shorthand conclusion that tourism and state government in the capitol is the engine driving the city. A couple of days of meetings remind you that first appearances don’t tell you everything you need to know. In the bigger-than-Texas state of Alaska, it is land and its use that still seems to matter the most.
On the way to Juneau the plane stopped briefly at Ketchikan, down the inner passage from Juneau. The city had built the airport across the passage in anticipation of the state building a promised bridge that would allow an expansion in that area. The bridge didn’t happen, so the airport is stuck across the water and served by a ferry that runs every half-hour or so back to the town.
Talking to a state employee in the capitol, as we introduced ourselves around, the discussion veered to the issue of why rental and home costs in Juneau were on par with mega-rich cities like San Francisco. It seems the city-county owns a huge amount of land around city, and holds the land in a tight grip according to this real estate expert, only allowing a little bit to trickle out from time to time in order to keep a vise grip on land values in order to inflate costs as high as possible. I was not surprised to hear an affirmative answer when I asked if the main income for local government was property taxes. Of course it was.
In Alaska, I’m helping organize a unique, membership organization of mental health consumers called MCAN, the Mental Health Consumers Action Network. Land matters to the mental health consumers because of a surprising resource that should, and could, have made Alaska a model for best-in-class mental health care and services. According to this useful source, when Alaska became a state in 1959, part of the turnover package with the federal government, who owned 99% of the land at the time, was the ceding of one-million acres of land and the equivalent in today’s dollars of about $100 million to the Mental Health Trust to allow Alaska to create a mental health care system which it did not have at the time.
Given the value of the land, not surprisingly in the same way we are fighting in west-central Africa, there was land-grabbing. The best of the land was parceled out to private individuals, several cities, and the state itself grabbed a huge chunk for recreation and similar purposes. Fortunately, the parent of a child with mental health issues sued successfully in what became a class action saying that his child was being denied adequate services because of this land grab, and a federal judge ruled that the legislature had violated the requirements of the trust and their land rush was illegal. By the 1980s, the trust was reconstituted to a half-million acres, and the state paid $200 million to compensate for its land grabbing.
There’s more to this story no doubt, but fast forward to now, and on first blush it doesn’t seem to get much better. The financial and land resources are managed in an ultra-conservative way according to knowledgeable observers from both state government and media sources, so that the yield from the land – and financial resources – is minimized, rather than maximized for the mental health community. Furthermore in talking to a reporter for the Juneau Empire, he noted there had been “mission drift,” as he called it, complicating the picture even more. As other patient-groups had lobbied more successfully than the mental health community, the resources were now balkanized somewhat between five different groups, as I was told by a mental health community center director, to also benefit in some ways those with Alzheimer’s, autism, and several other issues besides mental health. In essence, the pie was being cut into smaller and smaller pieces for mental health consumers seemingly without the state appointed stewards of the trust doing what needed to be done to maximize the size of the pie.
The MCAN organizers, leaders, and board members face enough of an uphill challenge in building a powerful organization of consumers and creating a vehicle for them to have voice and force change, but it also seems that in addition to those challenges, it will be hard to avoid getting our arms around the trust and the land and resource it controls in order to use this one-of-a-kind resource to realize its mission of creating best-in-class care and services for the mental health community.