New $521M Anchorage budget pays for more safety, snow plows, homelessness efforts

The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage.
The Anchorage Assembly chambers at the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage. (Staff photo)

The Municipality of Anchorage will see a slightly bigger budget in the upcoming year. At its Tuesday night meeting, Assembly members approved a roughly $521 million operating budget. Amid declining revenues, the city is struggling to close a spending gap while dealing with increasing costs to handle public safety and homelessness.

Listen now

The new budget is about $12 million dollars over last year’s, and it taxes to the maximum allowable limit under the city’s charter.

The Assembly spent a long stretch of time debating amendments to the Administration’s proposed budget. $125,000 was added back into the budget to reverse deeper cuts to the city’s Loussac library that would have cut its hours from 64 a week to 46. The allocation restores a little less than half of the proposed reduction. Another $170,000 was put in to handle cleaning up homeless camps along the trail system.

According to Felix Rivera, who represents communities in Midtown, the overall expenditure reflects the city’s priorities and values.

“We all know that the city has skin in the game to solve this problem. Let’s show it in the budget that we pass today,” Rivera said ahead of a vote to maintain spending on social services.

Much of the budget increase concerns a constellation of costs associated with homelessness, crime, substance abuse, police and emergency medical services. The Administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz asked the Assembly to approve millions of additional dollars for expanded police and fire departments, which includes ambulance transports that respond to an increasing number of health crises.

The mayor’s office also requested $500,000 more for snow plowing this year after facing criticism last winter over what many perceived to be diminished street clearing service.

Assembly members approved those measures.

They also added $50,000 to pay for a mobile syringe exchange program run by a local non-profit, the Alaska AIDS Assistance Association, which works mitigating the spread of blood-born disease among injection drug-users. Some Assembly members said it was an unfortunate but necessary expenditure as the city struggles to cope with the worsening effects of the opioid crisis.

“I think it’s a tragedy that we have to honestly consider doing this,” John Weddleton, who represents South Anchorage, said. “But I’m convinced that we have to buy needles for people.”

Some of the new costs are covered by a 10-cent tax on fuel the Assembly approved earlier this month, which will offset property taxes slightly for homeowners. The administration has also left several staff positions unfilled to reduce personnel costs.

The municipality’s two most fiscally conservative members from Eagle River were the lone votes against the budget on the 11-member body. Fred Dyson objected to Assembly members voting to use money from the fund balance to pay for extra services. Amy Demboski proposed unsuccessful amendments to make broad two percent cuts to nearly all city departments and another to delete $500,000 the mayor’s Administration wants to use for homelessness initiatives under the Department of Health and Human Services.

Demboski assailed the piecemeal appropriations to different “touchy-feely” groups.

“The fact of the matter is we have to get our priorities in line: It’s public safety, it’s infrastructure, it’s the basics,” Demboski said ahead of her no-vote. “There comes a point where property tax payers have had enough. And frankly, I’ve had enough.”

The city has faced declining income in recent years from a drop in state revenue sharing and the end of a rebate from a local electrical utility. Costs have also increased under labor agreements, and the Administration’s push to expand the police and fire departments.