Anchorage Assembly approves $2.65M for increased COVID testing

Regular Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in the Loussac Library in...
Regular Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021 in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska.(Jeremy Kashatok / Alaska's News Source)
Published: Oct. 13, 2021 at 6:14 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Members of the Anchorage Assembly passed an emergency ordinance at their Tuesday night meeting that will allow the use of $2.65 million to bring COVID-19 testing in the municipality back up to previous levels, after the city reduced testing hours.

The city recently made changes to COVID-19 testing hours in order to extend funding through Oct. 31, according to Public Information Officer Chelsea Ward-Waller. Funding for testing is paid for by the city and reimbursed by FEMA, she said via email.

In order to bring testing back up to where it was before that change, Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration requested additional funding in the form of an emergency ordinance. The ordinance appropriates $2.65 million for COVID-19 testing, and was passed by a 9-2 vote on Tuesday night.

Before it passed, the ordinance was amended so that the funding source was changed from the city’s capital improvements projects fund to instead come from the general fund. Assembly members Crystal Kennedy and Jamie Allard argued that pulling more from the general fund would give the fund a greater negative balance, but other assembly members emphasized that the city is reimbursed for things like providing COVID-19 testing by the federal government.

“It looks like a hole, but if you look at our books we’re going to have a negative in our fund balance,” said assembly member John Weddleton. “… but we have a plus in accounts receivable from FEMA. We’d like to get more money quicker, but we’re not. But we’re able to do this because we have been very responsible for decades in the city saving money. And that’s just what we’re doing, we’re using it for the emergency that it’s set aside for.”

Joe Gerace, director of the Anchorage Health Department, said there would be other alternatives the department could turn to, but that the funding situation for testing was “dire.”

“Testing will run out of money at the current rate on the 18th of October,” he said. “There are many alternate options that we could rapidly deploy. Continuing testing back to the original levels requires this amount of money to return to the testing that we were doing with the hours, at the locations that we formerly operated at, through 30 November. But there are many other options on the table. But the option that was most desirable that was presented to us was to return basically business as usual that we had operated at prior.”

Kennedy moved to postpone voting on the emergency ordinance, but that motion failed and the ordinance passed.

Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Anchorage Assembly attracted a smaller in-person crowd than in meetings past. It was held after a Friday special meeting was canceled when two members of Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski and Municipal Attorney Patrick Bergt, tested positive for COVID-19.

After some assembly members were in close contact with Demboski and Bergt during last Thursday’s meeting, many attended Tuesday’s regular meeting remotely. A legislative liaison for the assembly said earlier Tuesday that members and administration staff are still following guidelines for COVID-19 protocols in terms of close contacts and are staying isolated.

“Each Assembly Member and staff person was asked to make their own determination if they were a close contact (as defined by CDC – within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes over a 24-hour period) with either Ms. Demboski or Mr. Bergt,” wrote Legislative Liaison Clare Ross in an email. “Several have determined they were and several have determined they weren’t.”

Vice Chair Christopher Constant, attending in person, filled in for Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance as she attended telephonically.

Constant oversaw public testimony for a myriad of items on the agenda and off, with many members of the public stepping up to speak about their dismay over the behavior seen at recent assembly meetings. Public hearings on the proposed mask ordinance have been marked by unruly crowds, interruptions, arrests and members of the public using a Holocaust symbol to protest the proposed health measure.

“I am shocked and embarrassed for our city,” said Anna Brawley, of Anchorage, during part of her testimony. “Until this past week, I never felt unsafe entering this chamber. Many already voiced their comments ... we all want a safe, prosperous city. This requires working together.”

LaFrance addressed the ongoing struggles between the assembly and Bronson’s administration when it comes to holding meetings within the assembly chambers. She reiterated her reasons behind the assembly’s COVID-19 mitigation plan that’s in place in the chambers.

She said the administration has “refused” to work with assembly leadership to implement things such as physical distancing where assembly members sit, and has stopped the assembly from enforcing capacity limits in the chambers.

“When the administration removed the plexiglass shield from the podium at last Thursday’s meeting,” LaFrance said, “again, the assembly chambers’ COVID-19 mitigation plan has been and continues to be thwarted by the administration during our legislative meetings.”

LaFrance also referenced the removal of a contracted security company from the chambers during a recent public hearing at the direction of Demboski.

“While security remained on premises and (the Anchorage Police Department) was in the chambers, it’s important to note that without the presence of security in the chambers, the chair is unable to execute the security strategy that assembly leadership was advised by the APD to adopt,” LaFrance said.

Among the formal measures taken up during Tuesday’s meeting was a memorandum that allows the assembly to enter a contract of up to $50,000 for legal counsel on the separation of power issues between the assembly and administration. Brought forward by LaFrance, the memo was introduced Tuesday as a laid-on-the-table item, and would allow a contract with Birch Horton Bittner and Cherot.

The memorandum cites the ongoing clashes between the assembly and administration for control over the assembly chambers when it comes to COVID-19 mitigation, as well as two proposed measures that have been set for later public hearing that also deal with separation of power.

“It is anticipated there will be more conflicts and disputes between the legislative and executive branch over their respective functions and authority and implicate the separation of powers doctrine,” the memo states. “Assembly Counsel advises engaging with outside legal counsel for advice, legal services, and the potential of litigation for these complex matters and the amount of work necessary to sufficiently and adequately advise and support the Assembly in these disputes.”

Allard moved to postpone the measure indefinitely, but that motion failed. The memorandum for the legal counsel contract passed on an 8-2 vote.

In an apparent shift from his previous messaging — in which he has stopped short of encouraging vaccination and questioned whether hospitals were truly in a state of crisis — Bronson released a statement Monday that asked the public for unity and said health care professionals should be respected. It also superficially encouraged people to get vaccinated.

“Patients should not be afraid of their doctors, and health care workers should feel they are appreciated by those they help,” the statement reads in part. “We agree that vaccination is the best way to reduce COVID infections, serious illness, and death and strongly encourage everyone — in consultation with their health care provider — to get vaccinated.”

Gov. Mike Dunleavy also recently encouraged Alaskans to get vaccinated after stopping short of that statement for most of the pandemic.

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