Mayor cuts services to protect property taxes

February 19, 2011 

Dan Sullivan, mayor of Anchorage, says he ran for office on a platform of accomplishing four things: restoring "fiscal stability" to the city; improving the city's long-term energy future; maintaining city assets like roads and parks, rather than adding new ones; and reducing crime.

MARC LESTER / ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Buy Photo

In Anchorage, 500 fewer city workers are driving buses, inspecting buildings, patrolling neighborhoods and performing other city jobs now compared with 2008, the year before Mayor Dan Sullivan took office.

Halfway through his three-year term, Sullivan has made good on a campaign promise to shrink city government.

In many cases, people outside a city office may not notice much change. Some services, such as regular park clean-ups, are even more efficiently done, say people paying attention.

The meat and potatoes of government -- the police and fire protection, snowplowing and pothole-filling -- seem intact, if stretched thin. But at the edges of local government, where city amenities like swimming pools and libraries enliven the community, service cuts and price increases have already hit hundreds, even thousands of people, or will soon.

A slower bus ride here, a canceled lap swim there -- for some people, it adds up to a lessening of the quality of life in Anchorage.

For example, people waiting tables downtown at night can't catch a bus home -- there aren't any, says Sheila Selkregg, a UAA professor with a doctorate in urban studies, and a former Anchorage Assembly member.

"The very idea that we think it's OK to cut services to people who need them the most in order to make sure the people who are biggest property owners don't have to pay more taxes" is wrong, she says. "I really believe we are saving ourselves into the poorhouse."

Others say the public wants less government, and with labor costs locked in by contracts, scaling back services is the answer.

"There's a sense the mayor's playing with the cards he was dealt and doing a very effective job of it," says Assembly member Chris Birch.

Businessman Bob Bell, a former Assembly member, says, "He has a responsibility to the property owners not to tax any more than he has to."

CRISIS IN 2009

Sullivan, who grew up in West Anchorage and whose father, George, was also an Anchorage mayor, came into office in July 2009. The city was in the midst of a financial crisis brought on by the global recession. A stock market crash in the fall of 2008 depleted city investments.

Matt Claman, acting mayor from January to July 2009, quickly reported a $17 million deficit, won wage concessions from some city unions and began making deep cuts.

Sullivan found an additional deficit of $9 million shortly after he moved into the eighth floor mayoral office downtown. In August 2009, he laid off 27 employees -- about half of them in the Parks Department and eight from the Fire Department -- and announced another 56 vacancies would not be filled.

Four months later, in December 2009, the Assembly approved Sullivan's budget for 2010, which eliminated 200 more jobs, about 55 of them filled with people who had to be laid off.

For 2011, the Assembly and mayor approved a budget of $435.7 million, which calls for cutting scores more jobs. Most are vacant positions, among them two librarians, three library assistants and an associate librarian; 18 police officers; and a People Mover bus driver. The Parks Department lost eight positions and had to lay four people off.

BEYOND RECESSION, MORE CUTS

Sullivan says he ran for office on a platform of accomplishing four things: restoring "fiscal stability" to the city; improving the city's long-term energy future; maintaining city assets like roads and parks, rather than adding new ones; and reducing crime.

He often says the Assembly and his predecessor as mayor, Mark Begich, set the city on an unsustainable growth rate, locking the city into what Sullivan considers to be overly generous labor contracts for the next few years. A number of key city contracts, including police and fire, were approved in late 2008, weeks before Begich left office.

The city budget grew 50 percent in six years before he became mayor, Sullivan says.

The job cuts and efforts to make government work more efficiently are his way of slowing the growth.

The efficiencies, Sullivan says, include:

• Reorganizing the planning and building departments to have fewer executives.

• Reassigning some police officers to spend more time on patrol rather than on investigations.

• Ramping up collections of fees and fines.

• Saving millions in the way it issues new debt.

• Moving from manual to electronic time sheets for employees, a change that is planned.

Assembly member Patrick Flynn, often on the opposite side of the mayor on issues, says he gives some credit to the administration for finding efficiencies, "particularly in terms of automation."

For two years running, Sullivan's budgets have required the city to collect millions of dollars less in property taxes than the maximum allowed. Under the city's tax cap, that in turn lowers the amount of the tax cap for the following year.

Sullivan lists that as one of his accomplishments: "Enabling citizens to keep more of their disposable income during a period of economic downturn."

Critics, including several Anchorage Assembly members, say by not taxing closer to the cap, he's cutting into the city's future.

"Nobody's saying we have to collect everything," every penny available under the tax cap, says Assembly member Elvi Gray-Jackson. But the population of Anchorage is growing, and costs are rising due to inflation, she says.

"The tax cap allows us to collect more money to pay for a growing community and inflation," she says. "Cutting services is not what we want to do."

IT'S NOT OVER YET

Sullivan says he sees more reductions coming next year.

Some agencies that are stretched thin now say further cuts would hurt.

At the Parks Department, director John Rodda says they've made the easy cuts, combined jobs and become more efficient. As for future cuts: "If you squeeze any more, it's just going to break," he says.

Even some of the meat-and-potatoes departments are struggling to keep up.

For example, the city maintenance department still plow roads all over town -- except what the state plows -- within 72 hours of a storm hitting, says city maintenance director Alan Czajkowski. But sometimes the city cuts back on money to haul the snow out of neighborhoods after it's been plowed. And routine work, like painting a city-owned facility, takes longer to get to, Czajkowski says.

At the police department, there's no slack, says patrol Capt. Dave Koch. "If someone calls in sick, we might work an officer short, two officers short. Each officer has to handle more calls. ... There's less time for them to be looking for crime, less follow-up time."

As more officers leave, the effect will be noticeable, Koch says. The police department has an academy proposed for October to train recruits, but it will be late 2012 before any of those officers are completely trained, Koch says.

"If an officer quits today, it's almost two years before I'm going to see a replacement."


Find Rosemary Shinohara online at adn.com/contact/rshinohara or call her at 257-4340.

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