Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly members try to restore services in city budget

Anchorage Assembly members made suggestions Thursday to reverse proposals from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz to cut holiday bus service, library staff, senior centers, community grants and domestic violence prevention programs in next year's city budget.

During a meeting Thursday with Berkowitz and his deputies, Assembly members pitched 18 revisions to Berkowitz's budget. Many overlapped, and the majority drew from city savings to stave off cuts.

In late September, Berkowitz proposed a $502 million budget for 2017 that adds money for cops but cuts a range of city services — like snowplowing, bus service, hockey rink maintenance and city pools — to confront added expenses and less revenue. He also reduced the amount of money the city could distribute to community organizations in the form of grants.

Downtown Assembly member Patrick Flynn wanted to undo reductions in holiday bus service, library staff, community grant programs and money for the Anchorage and Chugiak Senior Centers, proposals also echoed by other Assembly members. Member Bill Evans and Forrest Dunbar introduced separate but identical proposals for restoring grant funding for domestic violence and sexual assault prevention programs.

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Assembly members Elvi Gray-Jackson and Dick Traini wanted to use about $500,000 from city savings to halt cuts to snowplowing service.

South Anchorage Assembly member John Weddleton requested money to fill a budget gap for a nonprofit bus service in Girdwood. He also wanted to help start a rewrite of Girdwood's decades-old comprehensive plan, a document that guides community development.

While Assembly members often agreed on restoring some of the services and grant money, there was disagreement about how to pay for it.

Flynn's proposals called for slicing the supply budgets for city departments. But most Assembly members favored using savings, rather than cutting further. The city currently has about $4.5 million in its "unrestricted" savings account, according to city Budget Director Lance Wilber.

One proposal, from Assembly member Bill Starr, called for an undisclosed amount of money to pay for an "anticipated out-of-court settlement" between the city's trash utility and Eklutna Inc. The Native corporation and the city's Solid Waste Services have been locked since 2013 in a dispute over revenues from the sale of methane gas produced at the city's dump in Eagle River.

An update on the dispute was recently delivered during an executive session between city attorneys and the Assembly. It wasn't clear Thursday that a settlement was imminent, but Starr indicated the city should be ready to pay for one.

The package of proposed changes Thursday did not yet include proposals from Chugiak-Eagle River Assembly member Amy Demboski, a budget hawk who offered amendments to cut the budget last year.

Demboski said in a text message Thursday she was still finishing amendments aimed at lowering property taxes and reducing the overall size of the budget. She said she expected to deliver those on Friday.

Berkowitz unveiled his own adjustments Thursday, a combination of cuts and expenses that will leave the bottom line unchanged. His changes included $150,000 for a lease on a Ship Creek building to host the city's project to shift to entirely vote-by-mail elections, and $100,000 for election workers.

Berkowitz will now decide which of the Assembly's proposals to include in a revised budget, to be introduced at Tuesday's Assembly meeting.

The Assembly has until Dec. 10 to adopt the budget.

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