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Anchorage Assembly unanimously passes amended city operating budget

Members of the public line up to testify at the beginning of an Anchorage Assembly meeting on...
Members of the public line up to testify at the beginning of an Anchorage Assembly meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021 in the Loussac Library in Anchorage, Alaska. The assembly was set to discuss and vote on the 2022 budget.(Jeremy Kashatok/Alaska's News Source)
Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 8:44 AM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - The Anchorage Assembly voted unanimously Tuesday night to approve a more than $500 million operating budget for next year, after a series of amendments were made and discussed dealing with funding for things like homelessness services, officers in schools and the city’s Mobile Crisis Team.

The budget, as proposed by Mayor Dave Bronson and his administration in October, originally represented about a $7.5 million reduction from the previous budget, or about a 1.3% difference. On Tuesday, assembly members introduced an amendment package that made multiple tweaks to the proposed budget before it was approved. Many of them sought to return funds that Bronson’s proposed budget had either removed or shifted to another area.

Much of the debate around the proposed 2022 budget has centered around how funding from the city’s alcohol tax is allocated, as well as on a proposal to shift 75% of the cost of the School Resource Officer program to the Anchorage School District. The administration has said its proposed budget in regard to the alcohol tax fund was crafted in a way to prioritize funding to combat the city’s ongoing homelessness issue.

Historically, the cost of the program has been split between the city and the school district 50-50. Currently, the city pays the full amount for the program. The administration’s proposal was that the school district pay for those officers for the time they are in the schools during the school year, or 75%, while the city pays for the other 25% when the officers are not in the schools.

The president of the Anchorage School Board said they were “blindsided” by the proposed decision and have not had time to discuss how that would be paid for out of the district’s budget.

“We’re in a position right now where we don’t have time to have those discussions because we had $2.3 million shifted to us literally overnight, from my perspective,” said Board President Margo Bellamy in a recent city meeting.

A letter from Bellamy to the assembly said shifting roughly $2 million for the School Resource Officer program to the school district would “disrupt an already fragile school environment.”

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and stagnant Base Student Allocation (BSA) formula have resulted in significant fiscal challenges which threaten our shared vision of improved academic outcomes and a future in which every child has the resources and opportunity to succeed,” she wrote.

As part of the amendment package, assembly members included $1.2 million for funding the School Resource Program for five months, which passed.

Another of the administration’s budget proposals was to move the city’s Mobile Crisis Team, which just started up this summer, from the Anchorage Fire Department to the Anchorage Police Department.

It would also slash the team’s funding from more than $1.5 million to $750,000. Some have expressed concern over the impacts having police officers respond to people in mental crisis could have on those situations, while the administration has said this is a way to save money while maintaining the service through the police department.

“Duplicate services were merged to save hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Bronson said at the beginning of Tuesday’s assembly meeting.

In amending the budget Tuesday night, the assembly added back the full $1.5 million in funding from the alcohol tax program for the Mobile Crisis Team, and kept it within the Anchorage Fire Department.

Other budget changes to the alcohol tax funding allocations that were proposed and passed during Tuesday’s meeting include $250,000 split equally between the nonprofits Victims for Justice and Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, and $1 million for the health department that will restore half of the budget for early education grants, which the original budget proposed to cut in half.

Assembly member Austin Quinn-Davidson, who brought forward the amendment packages with assembly member Forrest Dunbar, said one of the reasons they believed the changes would work is because it’s projected that both the city’s alcohol and bed taxes will come in slightly higher than originally estimated in the proposed budget.

“And these will fund the bulk of these public safety additions,” she said.

The amendment documents show a funding source of $500,000 of revenue from the alcohol tax, funds Quinn-Davidson said the city can count on since the program is expected to bring in more than anticipated.

“The $500,000 of increased 2022 tax revenue, I think, is a very conservative estimate,” Dunbar said. He expects it could be closer to $1-$1.5 million.

One of the ways the amendment package proposed to fund these changes was to put several health department positions totaling over $1 million back into the general operating budget as their source of funding. Bronson’s budget had proposed paying for those positions out of the alcohol tax fund instead.

Assembly member Felix Rivera spoke generally about the alcohol tax and what was happening when voters approved it.

“One of the big ideas for the alcohol tax was making sure that we funded both the now, but truly put thought into funding some of the downstream prevention,” he said. “And when we came up with the first iteration of the alcohol tax last year, I really felt that we did amazing work in being careful with how we crafted it. And it was really unfortunate for me to see the changes that the administration made.”

Rivera said the program is about making big impacts in the community.

Quinn-Davidson said that last, year, the assembly split the alcohol tax funding pretty evenly into three different areas of specific services.

“Right now it’s not as even, right? The mayor’s office proposed that we spend over half of that money on homelessness,” she said. “That’s not what the voters, we think, intended because when we brought (forward) an alcohol tax that was just based on homelessness they said no. And when we brought one based on upstream, or early ed(ucation), you know child abuse prevention, they said yes.”

Municipal Manager Amy Demboski reiterated the administration’s position on using the alcohol tax funds to support programs that combat homelessness.

“There was an intentional decision to again focus on the most vulnerable population, the most visible vulnerable population and one that seems to be getting worse over the past few years,” she said.

She said that by “shifting money away from that concerted effort,” the assembly is putting itself in a position where there are “lofty plans, and no way to fund it.”

Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the assembly voted to adopt the 2022 budget for the city’s capital improvement budget, and also passed a resolution adopting the General Government Capital Improvement Program.

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