Controversial Anchorage Budget Bumps Up Taxes for Public Safety, Veto Likely

The Anchorage Assembly passed a budget raising property taxes by 5.61%, splitting the body between those calling for fiscal conservatism, and others stressing a need for spending on public safety. Clashes will likely lead to line-item vetoes from the mayor’s administration.

Holding his young daughter at Tuesday evening’s meeting, Kelsey Taylor describes his job straightforwardly: “I’m a garbage man.”

Taylor was one of many employees from Solid Waste Services, which handles trash for much of Anchorage. They were there over a proposal to sell off the trash collection service to a private company. The issue has made garbage a hot topic in city politics. A report from a financial consultant found the utility is currently in good working order, and that selling it could bring financial outcomes ranging from marginal short-term gains, to an overall decline in revenues.

“It just seems like a bad deal for everybody,” Taylor said of the report’s findings, “really not a good competitive deal for the taxpayers of Anchorage.”

SWS has a surplus of cash right now. The Administration’s budget planned on shifting $5 million from the utility into different funds.

“The utility is way over-funded, they should not be holding cash,” Mayor Dan Sullivan said after the Assembly meeting. He believes the utility is fundamentally owned by all the residents of Anchorage, and that any extra money should be passed along in the form of property tax relief. “I think that’s a better use than parking a bunch of cash where they don’t need.”

But Assembly members rejected that, unsettling the mathematical equilibrium in the Administration’s budget.

A solid block of Assembly members added in several amendments, including more animal control employees, a coordinator for issues on homelessness, and a planner to work on new marijuana regulations. All together, the budget changes amount to a bump over last year’s levels. The amended version passed 6 to 5 (Demboski, Evans, Hall, Johnston, and Starr voting against), with some fiscal conservatives objecting that a tax increase is unacceptable.

But others claimed the Administration’s budget left out money for much needed services.

“These amendments tonight dealt with public safety,” said Assembly Chair Dick Traini, who commends the Administration’s emphasis on fiscal produnce, but sees an obligation to provide funding for measures to keep the public safe. “I think you’re going to find a lot of people very happy when they can get the officers to come when they’ve got an issue with a wild dog.”

Assembly members also removed a controversial pilot program from the Administration to send a small number of Anchorage’s street alcoholics out of state for substance abuse treatment. The $200,000 set aside for the program will remain in the budget, but it will now be up to an Assembly committee on what kinds of treatment it will fund.

Though it was far from the worst budget battle Sullivan has been through, line item changes are not yet set in stone. “The budget’s not done yet,” he said. “I have seven days to veto.”

The Assembly delayed several items, including voting whether or not to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the union representing police officers. That will come up at the next meeting, after the runoff election determining the city’s next mayor.