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Anchorage Assembly passes $521 million budget with more money for snowplowing, firefighters and prosecutors

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: November 22, 2017
  • Published November 21, 2017

The Anchorage Assembly passed an operating budget of about $521 million Tuesday night that spends more on snowplowing, firefighters, homelessness initiatives and city prosecutors, while cutting some city jobs and services, including Sunday hours at the Loussac Library.

Homeowners will pay about $130 less in property taxes next year on average, but drivers will pay a new local gas tax, starting in March. Mayor Ethan Berkowitz proposed the 10-cent-per-gallon gas tax as a way to rely less on property taxes to pay for city services.

In a two-hour debate Tuesday night, the Assembly, which is mostly aligned with Berkowitz, authorized close to $1 million in additional spending. That included tapping city savings to pay for more workers to clean up homeless camps, and a grant to Four A's, the state's largest needle exchange program.

Assembly members who voted in favor of the budget said it reflects the city's focus on public safety and homelessness.

"Who are we as a city if we don't help people on the edge?' said Assemblyman Felix Rivera of renewed city spending on homelessness initiatives.

The more conservative members of the Assembly, Fred Dyson and Amy Demboski of Chugiak-Eagle River, said the budget was outsized. The two voted against the budget and the additional spending.

Here's a broad overview of what ended up in the budget.

Where is more money being spent?

— Twelve new full-time firefighters to staff a new ambulance ($498,384). The budget also includes $750,000 in overtime to run two backup ambulances in the meantime.
— Paying off the city's massive business software upgrade, known as SAP ($4.5 million).
— Winter maintenance and snowplowing ($500,000)
— Homelessness projects, including money for more emergency overnight shelter space in the winter and for the housing of homeless elders ($500,000)
— More prosecutors ($300,000)
— Clean-up money for blighted and nuisance properties ($200,000).
— A police academy to replace retiring officers and maintain the size of the Anchorage Police Department.
— A vote-by-mail local election in April 2018 ($300,000)
— A grant for the Four A's needle exchange program ($50,000)

What's being cut or delayed?

— The Loussac Library will reduce its hours on Sundays.
— While staffing in the Fire Department will grow, 17 other jobs citywide will be cut, a mix of layoffs and retirements, according to city budget director Lance Wilber. Eleven additional positions will be left vacant next year.
— Most city departments cut budgets by 5 percent overall.
— City executives won't get cost-of-living raises next year.

What's bringing new money in?

In addition to the gas tax, which is projected to raise $11.7 million next year, the budget draws revenue from:

— A $100 hike in ambulance fees.
— New fees within the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department, including fees for research on land use permits and for temporary access to parkland for construction and utility projects.
— Local marijuana taxes.

What does this budget mean for property taxes?

The initial budget from Berkowitz amounted to a $131 reduction in property taxes for the average homeowner in 2018.

Berkowitz also wants to ask voters to approve a higher tax break for homeowners in the spring.

At the same time, Berkowitz's gas tax, which directly affects the size of a property tax cut, may face a challenge at the ballot box next year. David Nees, a retired teacher who has run for public office, filed an initiative application earlier this month to ask voters to repeal it.

What's the size of the budget?

Anchorage's general government budget is growing by about $12 million from the current year. City budget director Lance Wilber has said that fixed costs, like labor and health care, as well as changes in the economy, legal settlements and state spending, contribute to the size of the budget.

What does the city want to build next year?

Berkowitz and the Assembly added to a list of priorities for capital projects Tuesday night. Here are some examples of projects on the list, which could go to voters for bond approval in April:

— Close to $1 million to replace a walking bridge at the south end of Westchester Lagoon
— $3.3 million for a new treatment facility for stormwater sediment
— $2.5 million for road and drainage improvements in Campbell woods
— $2.2 million for upgrades to Alaska's public safety radio communications network
— $2.1 million for a new storm drain on 82nd Avenue, west of the Old Seward Highway
— $2.1 million to rebuild an emergency storm bypass system in Sand Lake

Note: A previous version of this story misstated the amount of money being spent on 12 new firefighters. It is $498,384, not $4.6 million.

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