Facing an outcry, Anchorage Assembly members abandoned deep cuts to the city flower and horticulture program in approving next year’s budget Tuesday night.
Some of the cuts were aimed at stepping up efforts to clear out illegal camps and moving people into emergency shelters. But on Tuesday, the administration of Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said it had come up with new ways to pay for more homelessness services — including a potentially larger Permanent Fund dividend next year.
The Assembly voted 9-2 to pass the $525 million operating budget Tuesday night, with Assembly members Amy Demboski and Fred Dyson of Chugiak-Eagle River the “no” votes.
The budget includes $800,000 that could be used for illegal camp clean-ups, as well as outreach and case management for people who are homeless, officials said.
Since Friday, more than 400 emails had come in support of downtown flowers and public greenhouses, said Assemblyman John Weddleton. Weddleton had suggested cutting the city’s entire $1.7 million horticultural budget and shifting the money to illegal camps and shelter beds. City officials have been under increasing pressure to take more decisive action on camps, which neighbors say have become more extensive and unsafe in recent years.
But gutting the city’s flower budget sparked a strong response. The city’s horticulture supervisor, Sandy Potvin, said the cut would destroy the city’s decades-old public greenhouses and halt programs
Opponents, including master gardeners, showed up at the Assembly meeting. They sat in the audience clutching roses and carnations. Pots of poinsettias and lilies were stationed near the Assembly staff table, and Weddleton brought a bouquet of his own.
In the end, all of the cuts were either withdrawn or rejected.
“People made really clear, you don’t want to cut everything that makes people happy about Anchorage,” Weddleton said in an interview earlier Tuesday afternoon. “And the flowers are awesome — I’m good with that.”
He said the city should look to find savings in its flower program apart from sudden cuts.
From Berkowitz’s original budget proposal in September, the budget approved Tuesday included $2.8 million more in spending. That included an additional $309,000 for illegal camp cleanups and homeless services. Berkowitz had originally allocated $500,000 for homelessness initiatives.
The extra money comes in part from new assumptions about next year’s Permanent Fund dividend, said city budget director Lance Wilber. With the election of a new governor, Mike Dunleavy, the administration was accounting for a $2,500 dividend, instead of a $1,600 dividend, Wilber said. Dunleavy campaigned on a pledge to restore cuts to the PFD.
With a higher PFD, the city expects to collect significantly more revenue from garnishments, such as unpaid traffic tickets, Wilber said.
He said the city is also projecting higher revenue next year from bed taxes, paid by Anchorage visitors.
In addition to funding more homelessness services, the extra revenue allowed the city to avoid cuts to the Anchorage Fire Department, Wilber said. The administration had proposed cutting down a water truck and a ladder truck from stations on the Anchorage Hillside to save money.
Assemblyman Dick Traini had suggested cutting the city flower budget to preserve the fire trucks. He said he was worried about a wildfire breaking out on the Hillside.
“Quite frankly, fire equipment outweighs flowers any day of the week,” Traini said.
But Traini dropped his proposal after the Berkowitz administration took fire department cuts off the table.
Assemblyman Dyson had proposed cutting much of the city’s flower budget in part to pay for safety improvements at The Dome, the inflated sports complex. He backed down from those ideas Tuesday night. His colleagues weren’t supportive of the proposal for The Dome, he said.
Dyson said he thought the city was mixed up on its priorities.
“We don’t have enough money to do all the things that need to be done,” Dyson said. “So, then, where do we cut that has the least impact for Alaska people?”
The approach of swapping flower funding for illegal camp clean-ups sparked backlash even from those have been pushing the city to do more about camps. In a post on the neighborhood social media site Nextdoor.com, Linda Chase, a member of the Rogers Park Community Council, accused the administration of playing “budget games” to drum up support for an alcohol tax.
Weddleton said he was glad to see so many were interested in the budget issues.
“We’re here to listen and respond, and do what’s best for the city,” Weddleton said. “Sometimes it won’t be popular, but it’s general direction on the mood of the city.”