After several hours of debate and discussion Tuesday night, the Anchorage Assembly unanimously passed the city’s operating budget.
The budget restores money for early education, police officers in schools and a roving team of crisis mental health providers.
Mayor Dave Bronson’s version of the budget, introduced in October, had originally cut city spending by 1.3%, including a chunk of funding for the School Resource Officers program. The long-running program puts Anchorage Police Department officers in Anchorage public schools.
Under the mayor’s initial proposal, the district would cover 75% of the cost, with the city picking up the rest. In prior years, it’s been more of a 50-50 split, according to Larry Baker, a consultant for the mayor’s administration.
“This is a return to practices in the past whereby the SROs were shared with the school district, and not 100 percent picked up by the administration” Baker said during a meeting last week with the Anchorage School Board and city Assembly.
The school board had argued that the mayor’s budget proposal put additional financial stress on the school district, which has seen budget crunches due to the COVID-19 pandemic and stagnant state funding.
“The proposed budget will shift more than $2 million onto the shoulders of the district and disrupt an already fragile school environment,” the school board wrote in a letter to the Assembly ahead of Tuesday’s meeting.
The Assembly ultimately sided with the school board, and amended the mayor’s budget to fund school resource officers through the end of the school year, at a cost of around $1.2 million. They also voted to add money for building inspectors that were eliminated by the mayor.
Assembly members also voted to add money for building inspectors that were eliminated by the mayor. That amendment passed unanimously. As part of the amendment, the Assembly erased the city’s real estate director job. Bronson’s previous pick for the position, Jim Winegarner, was voted down by the Assembly. Winegarner now serves as a special assistant to the mayor, and duties of the real estate director will be handled by Adam Trombley, director of the Office of Economic and Community Development.
In the amendment, the Assembly estimated that the municipality should receive $2.5 million more in room tax than predicted by the Bronson administration, as well as another half-million dollars from the alcohol tax.
When it came to using revenue from the alcohol tax, the mayor and the Assembly also had different views.
The mayor’s budget proposal put alcohol tax funding toward health officials, the police department and homeless shelters. Municipal manager Amy Demboski said the mayor’s approach was based on the ongoing rise in the homeless population in Anchorage.
“This was a compassionate approach to address that situation,” she said. “People who are on the verge, who have really, a desperate situation, whether it’s for their health or their long-term survival.”
But Bronson’s budget proposal had cut funding for early education and the Mobile Crisis Team, a program started last year and funded by alcohol tax revenue. It’s meant to shift the city’s mental health response from police to behavioral health experts. Bronson reduced the MCT funds and moved it from the fire department to the police department in his budget.
Advocates for the alcohol tax have decried the mayor’s approach to the revenue, which was supposed to be used to address child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence as well as mental health and substance misuse treatment and homelessness.
“The proposed budget for the alcohol tax revenue really goes against the spirit of what voters wanted when they passed the alcohol tax last year,” said Tiffany Hall, executive director of Recover Alaska, a nonprofit that works to fight alcoholism. “One of the main things that is concerning to me is the shift from upstream to downstream measures.”
For example, while Bronson wanted to put the revenue toward homeless shelters, Hall argued the money should fund preemptive measures like investing in early education and mental health resources.
Assembly member Meg Zaletel spoke in favor of an amendment that put the alcohol tax funds toward the preemptive measures.
“What I think it does is that it shows that we’re making investments in the wellness of our community,” Zaletel said.
The Assembly voted to amend the mayor’s budget, putting alcohol tax funds back toward the Mobile Crisis Team, restoring early education funding and putting money toward grants addressing child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. The amendment passed 9-2 with Chugiak/Eagle River Assembly members Crystal Kennedy and Jamie Allard opposed.
As amended, the operating budget passed unanimously, shortly before midnight, prompting applause from the audience.
If Bronson vetoes the budget passed by the Assembly, the Assembly would need a supermajority of eight members to override his veto.
“Mayor Bronson is carefully reviewing with the departments, the budget that was passed last night,” Bronson spokesman Corey Allen Young said in an email. “His priorities remain the same since the first day he took office, in creating a more efficient and effective government that will take the burden off the tax cap for all people of Anchorage.”