Anchorage snow removal gets political in campaign for mayor

Rosemary Shinohara
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Buried, deluged, jammed up -- Anchorage has been hit with double the normal amount of snowfall this winter, and the city blowers and haulers have struggled since the first storms hit in November to clear neighborhood streets and cul-de-sacs filled with super-sized piles of snow.

The city ramped up snow removal spending by $3.1 million this winter, largely for overtime and contracted truckers to haul snow to dumps, said Alan Czajkowski, director of street maintenance and operations.

Still, all over town, people have been complaining for weeks of two-lane roads in subdivisions squeezed to 1 1/2 lanes or less.

Anchorage Assemblyman Paul Honeman, who is trying to unseat Mayor Dan Sullivan in the April 3 city election, says the city's response to this year's snow overload shows the mayor is a poor manager, more interested in cutting the size of government than providing adequate service. It's a major theme of his campaign.

Sullivan counters that the city has marshaled all its resources and added some from the private sector for snow removal.

"When you're approaching the all-time record I think it's going to be a little slower than normal," Sullivan said last week.

Honeman says the administration under Sullivan didn't plan for the contingency of such an out-sized snowfall, and has been slow to respond. He likened the situation to the Lower 48 where some areas have to be ready for hurricanes of all sizes. "My point is be prepared, have strategies in place to respond appropriately."

Honeman, who was with the Anchorage Police Department for 23 years, said he has more disaster management experience than the mayor.

"I'm not pounding on the men and women plowing the roads. It's bad management at City Hall," Honeman said in an interview.

Sullivan said on the contrary, it would be bad management to buy extra equipment to gear up for a once-in-a-lifetime snow event such as it appears Anchorage is having this winter.

The city is using all available resources, Sullivan said Friday. "What that tells me is that he's criticizing my employees. I take umbrage at that."

Earlier in the week, Sullivan defended the city's snow removal effort during his regular Wednesday press briefing, and announced the city had begun daily updates at to let residents know where plows and hauling operations had been, and what neighborhoods they were going to.

"We never hold back on snow plowing," he said. "We make sure that every dime that they need to do their job is available to them. And this year we've even hired some private contractors to help with the plowing and some of the front-end loaders from different private enterprise that we don't normally do."

The mayor said he was increasing emphasis on snow removal information because "I've heard from citizens who were in attendance at community councils that actually had their Assembly member report suggest we weren't applying all available resources and it's just simply not true."

Honeman said he believes it is true, and has been saying so at council meetings.

Czajkowski, the city street maintenance director, said the department spent all its snow removal money in 2011 -- $11.7 million -- where many years, it has half a million or so to return to the general fund.

In January, the administration won Assembly permission to spend up to twice as much on private contractors as had been planned this winter, for a total of $2.5 million.

Most of the additional money the city is spending is going towards hauling snow out of neighborhoods.

Every month except October, the snow fell in unusually high quantities, Czajkowski said.

"Normally we'd be able to get caught up by now," he said.

The evidence that the city could do more is in the unspent funds the city often has leftover from its entire budget at the end of the year, Honeman said. Last year there was a balance of $11 million in unspent 2010 money, some of which the city gave back to taxpayers and some of which was re-appropriated.

Honeman said he's heard there will be $8 million to $10 million in leftover 2011 money, but a city budget official said information on unspent funds isn't available yet.

Sullivan said it's prudent government not to spend all the money if it's not needed.

"Paul just doesn't seem to understand if you come in under budget and provide outstanding service, you're doing the taxpayers a service," Sullivan said.

Honeman says the issue isn't just snow removal, but an approach to government that centers on cutting services. Other examples he cites are positions the Sullivan administration proposed cutting from the parks department this year, and the fact that the Dimond Center branch library has closed.

Sullivan responded that the parks "are being run better than ever .... We're doing a better job maintaining them than ever before."

And he noted there's been no net loss of libraries while he's been in office -- while the Dimond branch closed, a branch in Mountain View re-opened.

The mayor said he stands on his record of improving the city's fiscal condition, emphasizing public safety, doing a better job of maintaining city assets and securing a better energy future for Southcentral Alaska.

Anchorage Daily News