Road bonds pass; most others rejected

Megan Holland

Anchorage voters on Tuesday rejected most of the municipal bond propositions, sending a resounding no to going much more deeply into debt.

A total of $141 million in debt was on the ballot for voters' approval, and they turned down 74 percent of it. Voters said yes to only about $37 million, mostly for road improvements across the city.

They rejected bond proposals for school, parks and library improvements.

The results were consistent with a pattern of voters slapping down the city's request to take on new debt every couple years. In 2001 and 2006, voters also said they wouldn't pay for three quarters of what the city was asking for. In those years, voters also turned down big bonds proposed by the school district.

Anchorage School District superintendent Carol Comeau said she was disappointed with Tuesday's results but understood voter nervousness about the possibility of the global economic recession spreading to town.

Voters have been bombarded in recent months with news of fallen oil prices, plunging state revenue, stagnant home values, a staggered tourism industry and a stressed city budget that has caused cutbacks in the police and fire departments.

The school bonds would have paid to renovate Service High School, extend water and sewer lines to Eagle River High and do lesser upgrades to schools across the district. Comeau said some projects that the bonds would have funded involve fixing safety hazards, which now will have to be paid for out of the budget for regular school operations.

Comeau also said she is re-thinking proposing school bonds when the mayor's race is on the same ballot. Several leading mayoral candidates this year spoke out against school bonds.

"With the mayor's race, they are looking to separate themselves apart from each other, and so we are a pretty good target," she said. "It just increased the anti-bonds sentiment."

School Board president Jeff Friedman, who won re-election Tuesday to three more years on the board, watched the results stream into Election Central on Tuesday night. He said he didn't think there was a clear message or pattern on the school bonds. In the previous two years, voters said yes to $129 million in bonds for school projects.

"You just can't tell," Friedman said.

Another School Board candidate, Steve Pratt, who lost his bid for Seat B, said Tuesday night that he thought voters were sending a message to the district: Get spending under control. He sees the rejection as a sign of the growing disappointment in the job the district is doing.

The district's operating budget has nearly doubled in the past decade, and voters have continued to be frustrated with the graduation rate, she said. Still Anchorage has many aging schools that need major renovations, typically funded by selling bonds. Comeau wants to know how the public plans to pay for those big projects without cutting into classroom quality.

Anchorage political consultant Dave Dittman, who polled voters months ago about the proposed bonds, said he didn't think voters were "rejecting" the bonds. He saw the results as voters prioritizing city services -- roads and public safety -- over schools.

Most of the bonds defeated Tuesday came within about five percentage points of passing, he pointed out.

State economist Neal Fried said that even though the recession hasn't hit Alaska yet, people are clearly nervous. They are hearing that employment is going to decline for the first time in 20 years, and that there may be slowdowns in the cargo, oil and tourism sectors.

"People talk about it," he said. "I gave two talks today and the subject certainly comes up."