Our View: City budget

Skip Plan A, go to Plan B

October 3, 2012 

The mayor's tale of two budgets doesn't leave much choice, but for the record the choice is just about this:

Maintain most basic city services at or near current levels, or make deep cuts for little gain.

If the Assembly refuses to use about $12 million in property tax money available to the city from what would be part of the school allocation, we'll see the mayor's Plan A budget, or something like it:

• Slash the police force by 29 officers, gutting the gains of the most recent police academy and seriously reducing the APD's force on the street. Even Assemblyman Bill Starr, a longtime budget hawk, says that makes no sense. And even Mayor Dan Sullivan, who has argued that it's not the number of officers but their deployment that matters most, understands that you need some numbers to deploy.

• Cut People Mover bus service and raise fares. Plan A would eliminate Eagle River service entirely, kill Route 60 between downtown and Oceanview, end Sunday service, cut early and late runs and reduce Saturday service. Many in Anchorage wouldn't feel a thing. Poorer residents would find key transportation, including to and from work, suddenly gone or reduced. Want the business perspective? Ask retail employers if bus service matters.

• Close the South Port, Rabbit Creek and Tudor fire stations, shut down Truck 11 in Eagle River and lay off 11 firefighters. The mayor pointed out that multiple stations respond to fires now and residents would still be covered. But cuts like this would give us much less coverage. Fire chiefs for years have made the case that seconds and minutes matter when responding to fire and other emergencies. That argues against station closures and firefighter cuts.

• Further reduce library hours from an operation that already smacks of part-time. Loussac Library would go from 60 hours a week to 46. The branches would shrink from 34-36 hours to 21. Libraries are rich resources for everyone in the community. But they're like the books and Internet access they provide -- they can do no good if they're not open.

Plan A also includes extensive Parks and Rec cuts, including grant cuts to community centers and ARC of Anchorage.

Plan A is a budget not even a budget hawk could love. A vulture, maybe.

Mayor Sullivan said it's a budget that would degrade city services, including the most basic -- public safety and transportation. The mayor's A-B budget package has a little "Christmas Carol" warning quality about it: Here's what you get, Scrooge, if you're too tight-fisted. You won't like it.

His recommended alternative is Plan B, which also includes cuts -- but maintains current police staffing, People Mover service and library hours. It includes South Port and Truck 11 Eagle River fire closures, but retains current firefighters. Parks and Rec would take less of a hit, but community center programs and Camp Fire would still lose money. Plan B includes pain, but less of it.

To go to Plan B, the Assembly needs to OK the transfer of the local tax revenue from the schools to city services. The need arises from a recent state law that limits the amount of local taxes that can be collected for schools. Alaska schools are funded through varying combinations of local, state and federal money.

Anchorage schools won't lose money because the state will cover any loss of local revenue, although there is no guarantee that the state will safeguard schools from inflation.

There may some temptation for the Assembly to take the $12 million and apply some or all of it to property tax relief.

That would give property tax payers a few dollars off their tax bills while guaranteeing deep cuts in city services, permanently lowering the tax cap and making it harder to maintain even Sullivan's conservative, sustainable budget plan in the future. That's a bad bargain.

The Assembly should start its debate with Plan B. That's common sense.

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