City wants state to help cover costs of picking up, caring for inebriates

Nathaniel Herz

Anchorage officials are asking the state for $500,000 to help cover the rising cost of a contract for a van service that picks updrunk people from the street.

The request, which is being made at the behest of Assembly members Bill Starr and Amy Demboski, would have the state pay about a fourth of the cost of a contract with a private company, which was recently boosted to $2 million from $1.5 million.

It was included in the draft of the annual legislative package that the city sends to state lawmakers, which Mayor Dan Sullivan released last week.

Under the contract, NANA Management Services operates vans that respond to reports of people incapacitated by alcohol, then transports them to the Anchorage Safety Center for recovery.

Demboski earlier this year got the Assembly to add money to the contract so that the vans could operate 24 hours a day, and provide more extensive service.

Demboski is married to a firefighter, and says she had heard from her husband's colleagues that the van service's coverage was too thin -- sometimes forcing the fire department to pick up incapacitated people, which could delay responses to more urgent calls.

The city has $500,000 in next year's budget to cover the extra van service, thanks to an amendment from Demboski that the Assembly passed last month.

But Demboski maintains that alcoholism is a "statewide issue" that has been shifted to Anchorage, so she and Starr also got members to approve the request to the state to cover the new costs.

If the request is approved during this year's legislative session, the extra city funding could be returned to taxpayers, said Demboski, a fiscal conservative who represents Chugiak and Eagle River.

To demonstrate her point about alcoholism as a statewide issue, she pointed to figures showing that more than half of the 3,400 people who used the Anchorage Safety Center last year were born in Alaska, but not in the city. That's also the case for nearly three quarters of the center's 200 most frequent users.

"Anchorage residents are picking up 100 percent of the tab," Demboski said. "I think it's appropriate for the state to help out a little bit."

In fact, Anchorage received about $200,000 in federal funding for the safety patrol and safety center program in 2013, through the Southcentral Foundation.

But the city will lose that money next year due to federal cuts, and it's not clear how the shortfall will be met, according to Britteny Matero, a division manager at the city's department of health and human services.

Jeff Jessee, the chief executive of the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, said that there was some validity to the idea that Anchorage's alcohol-related problems are a statewide issue.

But he argued that it should be the industry, not taxpayers, covering the cost of programs like the van service and safety center.

"If any other business had negative environmental consequences, whether it was pollution, or leaving debris around, nobody would say, 'Don't worry about it -- the state or the (city) will take care of it,'" he said. "This constant finger-pointing between the (city) and the state over who's responsible for these things -- it's sort of a zero sum game."

Anchorage officials haven't yet approached state legislators or the governor's office about the money, but they plan to after the Assembly finalizes its full package of legislative requests, according to Shalon Harrington, the city's director of government affairs.

The request is one that Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage, said she would "definitely take a look at."

"I can see an argument there that it's serving people from all over the state," said Holmes, who sits on the House's finance committee. "I'll be interested to talk to my rural colleagues about what they say about that migration in and out of urban centers, and how we work together on those issues."

Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, was more skeptical, saying that he would prefer spending state money to help Anchorage combat alcoholism proactively -- by funding treatment centers, for example.

"I'd rather deal with the problem, so we're not constantly picking these guys up," said Meyer, who's the co-chair of the Senate's finance committee, as well as a member of the health and social services committee. "I'm sure it will be considered, but there are so many items the city's requesting -- I just don't know where it's going to fall on the priority list."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at or 257-4311.