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Bronson’s proposed alcohol tax budget raises concerns over intent, long-term results

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 6:05 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed budget for the municipality’s alcohol sales tax program would make changes to how the money is spent, raising concerns from community members and assembly members involved in the program’s creation who worry the spending changes go against the original intent of the tax.

The mayor’s office says the proposed budget focuses on the high-priority issue of homelessness in Anchorage, while still funding other priorities of that tax revenue program.

The 5% alcohol sales tax was approved by Anchorage voters in April 2020. It went into effect Feb. 1 this year. The code was written so that funding from the program could contribute to three areas of focus: first-responders and criminal justice; prevention of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence; and substance abuse, mental health and homelessness.

Bronson’s budget proposes $13.2 million for the program in 2022, $1.4 million more than this year’s projected budget, which only had 11 months of revenue, but some of the changes within the program have people who advocated for it concerned.

“When we were creating the tax we asked residents of Anchorage where they wanted funding to go,” said Tiffany Hall, CEO of Recover Alaska, which conducted outreach, polling and more when the ordinance was proposed and before it was brought to voters. “People were looking for new solutions. They know we need to keep doing what we’ve always been doing, but we need to try some new things, because our problems aren’t going away.”

The changes that have received the most vocal criticism in Bronson’s proposal are: cutting early childhood education grants in half, from $2 million to $1 million; moving the Mobile Crisis Team from the Anchorage Fire Department to the Anchorage Police Department and reducing its budget from nearly $1.6 million to $750,000; and adding seven public health positions, including an epidemiologist, public health nursing supervisor, and five public health nurses to the budget.

Those positions, totaling more than $978,000, are currently funded in the operating budget, though the epidemiologist position is vacant. The city’s previous epidemiologist, Janet Johnston, resigned in July, just weeks after Bronson took office, after finding that her approach to the pandemic and the mayor’s were “probably not going to be the best fit.”

Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who represents East Anchorage and ran against Bronson for the mayor’s seat, says that moving those positions to the alcohol sales tax program goes against the intent of the program, and the voters who enacted it.

“It’s more about the spirit of the law,” Dunbar said Wednesday. “Those positions were created, not intending to be related to homelessness or the alcohol tax, now they are shifting them over to there, but they were initially funded with a different method. I think that’s exactly the kind of backfill that the voters thought that they were preventing.”

In a work session on the program Monday, Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said those positions are appropriate for the alcohol tax program because of the work they do with vulnerable populations.

“This is a dedicated group of employees who very frequently are working in a population that has potential mental and behavioral and mental health issues, or maybe they’re a vulnerable population,” she said. “We’re not trying to say this is one part of their job and that’s why they qualify, but a core piece of their job is to serve this population.”

That the positions did not exist in the 2020 operating budget is another reason the administration says the positions can be funded with alcohol sales tax revenue. The 2020 budget was set as the base line for the designation of “new” solutions versus backfilling general city operating costs.

The Mobile Crisis Team has been one of the most innovative developments from the alcohol sales tax program. The program, run by the Anchorage Fire Department, sends a paramedic and mental health clinicians to calls involving someone in mental distress, freeing up firefighters and police officers from the non-medical and non-criminal calls. It began service in mid-July. Bronson’s proposal would shift the team to be under the Anchorage Police Department, a move some say could have a chilling effect on people calling the team.

“Relocating the MCT program from the fire department to the police department goes against the spirit of the program, which was designed to deescalate disturbances in the community without involving police,” said Andrew Gray, a Campbell Park area resident who testified to the assembly on the moves in late October.

Hall, one of the program’s earliest proponents, is concerned about a move so early in the team’s existence.

“I’m really concerned about the large cut to the mobile crisis team and shifting that from fire to police,” she said Thursday. “It just finally got stood up and we’re seeing really wonderful results and the budget is getting cut in half and moved before it even has a chance to get its feet under it.”

Bronson’s spokesperson, Corey Allen Young, said the cut and reorganization is a result of talks with the police and fire departments.

“They feel like they can do the same job and better with the police department,” Young said Thursday. “They also feel like they can have a cost savings, so not only can they do the same work in working with the public, but also saving the city some money.”

The cuts to the early childhood education grants received a lot of pushback at recent assembly meetings.

Known as an “upstream” program — or a program that can prevent a problem before it becomes one — proponents say that early childhood education is a long-term investment, but it’s hard to see the results for years.

“It’s really hard to find prevention dollars and dollars that go upstream because it takes 5, 10, 20 years to see the results,” Dunbar said. “So politicians, I think understandably, they want these results now. So if it doesn’t help them in their term, they might cut those things and shift it toward what they see as a more immediate concern.”

“But I think a lot of people in Anchorage realize that you have to get to the root of some of these issues, to mental health issues, to substance abuse issues, and try to treat individuals so that we lower the costs into the future,” he continued. “And that’s one of the crucial points about the alcohol tax; it’s a really unique source of funding for those prevention programs, those kind of upstream programs.”

In Monday’s work session, Demboski said the priority of the administration and the assembly at this point is homelessness services.

“There has to be a place where that funding comes from,” Demboski said. “So we thought, looking at the whole picture, (the Anchorage School District) could pick up the tab, if you will, on some of this Pre-K, and we can divert and use these funds for another very high use, high importance issue.”

The Anchorage School District and assembly have a budget work session on Friday. The assembly and administration have a work session Friday on the overall alcohol tax revenue program, and one on Monday focusing on the mobile crisis team.

The mayor is expected to introduce a substitute budget at the upcoming Tuesday assembly meeting, during which the assembly is expected to propose amendments and may vote on the municipality’s full operating budget, including the alcohol tax budget, for 2022.

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