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Anchorage declares civil emergency over budget vetoes

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz declared a civil emergency due to the effect of budget cuts. He announced the declaration at a press conference in City Hall on July 24, 2019. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz declared a civil emergency Wednesday in response to the deep cuts Gov. Mike Dunleavy has made to state operating budget, saying the subsequent reduction in services available will cause an “unprecedented public health and safety crisis.”

Berkowitz said the emergency declaration will allow the city greater flexibility in preparing for the fallout of the steep budget cuts, which he said would cause “dire and imminent public safety and health risks.”

The emergency declaration gives the municipality, among other things, the ability to set up temporary emergency shelters to house the estimated 800 people the city expects to see added to the homeless population as a result of service cuts stemming from the budget vetoes.

Berkowitz said that as more vulnerable people are put out on the street, officials expect to see “unprecedented demand” for services provided by emergency responders.

Most immediately, the city must prepare for the closure of Brother Francis Shelter on Aug. 1 for four days. Lisa Aquino, the head of Catholic Social Services, said the closure is necessary for the shelter to reset programming with a reduced capacity. The number of emergency service calls could increase with the closure, she said.

The shelter has a capacity of 240. Staff have been preparing residents and helping as many as possible to develop a plan for where to go in the short term, she said. When the shelter reopens, it will have a capacity of 100.

Beds will be assigned using a lottery system that will be refined over time, she said. She called the process of figuring out how to structure the lottery “terrible.” The social service has an ethics subcommittee that met about it, she said.

“There is more than 100 of every kind of vulnerable sub-population,” she said.

Transitional housing services and state senior benefits are also under threat from the budget cuts, and University of Alaska administrators expect 700 job losses in Anchorage alone after a gutting of the university system’s state funding.

All those things will increase the need for housing and put stress on both municipal departments and private service providers, said municipal manager Bill Falsey.

The Anchorage Assembly still has to decide exactly how it wants to implement the declaration, said Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia, but it has essentially three options for solving the problem of displaced residents: allocating funding to local service providers, setting up temporary sanctioned camps, or finding other facilities that can house people temporarily. The Assembly could also decide not to take any action at all, Perez-Verdia said.

It’s unlikely that any action will be taken immediately, Falsey said. The Assembly’s committee on homelessness will meet at 10 a.m. Friday at City Hall, and at 11:30 a.m. the Assembly will hold a special meeting to determine whether to extend the emergency declaration.

Between now and then, the Assembly hopes to receive feedback from the public on how best to proceed, Perez-Verdia said.

The emergency declaration is in effect until 3 p.m. Friday.

It’s unclear where the funding for the declaration will come from. The mayor’s proclamation does give the municipality the flexibility to free up its own allotted funds, Falsey said. It does not give the municipality access to federal funding, though officials are trying to use state disaster funds, according to Berkowitz.

“There’s a certain irony that the state precipitated the disaster and now we would now seek their assistance,” Berkowitz said.

The municipality is working with United Way of Anchorage to set up an online portal where people can donate to the organizations affected by the cuts.

The last time an emergency was declared in Anchorage was after the Nov. 30, 2018, earthquake.

Anchorage Daily News writer Julia O’Malley contributed to this story.

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