The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage Assembly in the 2020 election to answer a series of questions, many of which were based on suggestions from readers. Find all candidates and their answers here. (We also surveyed candidates for Anchorage School Board.)
Note: This survey was sent and candidates’ responses were collected in February, before the first confirmed case of the new coronavirus was reported in Alaska.
Candidate: Suzanne LaFrance
Occupation: Area manager
Why are you running?
Anchorage has been my home for the past 23 years. The ongoing state fiscal situation has placed our community at a crossroads. What we do now will determine the future of our city. I care about my community and want my family and neighbors to live in a place that’s safe, has strong schools, good jobs and economic opportunity. We are making steady progress at the local level and we need to keep that momentum going. We must avoid being dragged down by the kind of dysfunction and partisanship we see at the state level.
What is your overall vision for Anchorage?
We live in a beautiful place, among good people, in a community rich with resources and activities. We’re on the cusp of pulling out of an economic recession and the future is bright, as long as we work together to solve the challenges and seize the opportunities before us. Anchorage needs to be more than a cheap place to live. If we are to thrive, we must compete with other cities to attract and keep skilled and hardworking people. I want Anchorage to be among the most livable communities in the world, with safe neighborhoods, strong schools, good jobs and a vibrant economy. We need to be a place that beckons to families, young people and seniors alike. Anchorage is where I want my kids to raise their families.
What specifically should the city do to offset the decline in revenue from the state? Are you in favor of new taxes or revenue? If so, what specifically?
The state fiscal crisis is not letting up and we have seen ongoing drastic state cuts to essential community services, putting more pressure on the city to pay for and provide these services. We need to become more self-reliant as a community. As the tax cap rightfully limits what the Municipality of Anchorage can levy, voters will decide this April if we want to tax alcohol to address some of the municipality’s pressing public safety demands. If state support for services continues to decline, we will be forced to make tough decisions about the quality of life we want for Anchorage. How important are road projects and sidewalks, street lights on major roads, public health and safety and schools? I’ve heard passionate campaign speeches about how we need to just embrace the Alaskan value of innovation and increase industry, but to attract and support industry and innovation, we need good schools, safe communities and strong infrastructure.
Should the city cut its budget? If so, where specifically would you cut spending?
The Assembly has worked hard to prioritize spending on essential services. For the last five years, we have made steady and significant cuts to every department to fund growth of the police force and to support the fire department. We still need more dispatchers and non-sworn staff to bolster public safety, while the public demand for more code enforcement, street lights and road maintenance services grows. Any meaningful cut to the overall budget would risk the public’s safety and make Anchorage a less desirable place to live. Promising to simply cut our way out of this fiscal crisis shows a lack of understanding of the critical services the municipality provides. It also ignores that the public has told the Assembly loud and clear that a safe, livable city is important.
What specific steps should the city take to address homelessness? If your vision requires funding, where would the money come from?
Homelessness is a serious problem that impacts everyone in our community. It’s complex and won’t be solved with platitudes and simplistic solutions. Even though we’ve made significant cuts to nearly every department in the municipality in order to increase police and fire support, much of these departments’ time is spent responding to residents who are suffering from mental health issues and addiction. At the same time, over the last decade, the capacity for state-funded facilities to offer support to these individuals has decreased. That means when an officer responds to a call for an individual who truly needs medical support, there is nowhere for the officer to take that person. The role of the municipality is to support the public-private partnership of the Coalition to End Homelessness through funding public health and safety, camp abatement and cleanup. This support has increased during my term and it needs to continue as we shift away from funding services to holding public and private providers accountable for outcomes. So when I say we’re going to clean up camps and end homelessness, it’s going to take a community effort to get there. We are also forced to pick up typical state responsibilities for mental health services, substance misuse treatment and prisoner re-entry supports. Without these, homelessness would continue to increase.
What is the biggest issue facing Anchorage, and how would you address it?
The biggest issue facing the Municipality of Anchorage is the state fiscal crisis as it continues to shake business and consumer confidence and threatens economic recovery, as well as services as basic as streetlights on major roads. Just saying “cut the budget” is naïve and irresponsible. Those who are saying “just cut the city budget” have not paid attention to what we’ve been doing. For every police officer we have hired, we have cut another position from the budget. We have honored the tax cap, and any tax increase that has happened has happened because it went to the ballot and voters approved it. We need to agree on ways to become more self-reliant because we can’t count on the state to meet its traditional obligations.
What specific steps should the city take to address crime in Anchorage?
Crime has dropped in some areas as we’ve added over 100 police officers during my first term. There is still a need for dispatchers, non-sworn staff and prosecutors to ensure that dangerous criminals are jailed. We can’t arrest our way to safety. The next step is to stop the cycle of crime through a public-private partnership to offer treatment and job training to those suffering from mental health and substance misuse issues. Early interventions, such as pre-K and school counselors and supports, have been proven to reduce crime.
2019 was the warmest year on record for Alaska. What should Anchorage do to address climate change?
There should be no question that warming weather is impacting Anchorage. The McHugh Creek fire, last summer’s MLK fire and fires in cities far away had major impacts on Anchorage. When I was a kid, the air was rarely choked with wildfire smoke like it is today. Last summer, there were days when the air quality was so bad that we kept our kids indoors. That’s no way to spend summer in Alaska. Wildfire is a very serious issue in our district as many areas have only one road for evacuation. I’d like to take this opportunity to praise the efforts of the Rabbit Creek Community Council and the Hillside’s Home and Landowners Organization (HALO) to raise awareness of wildfire danger. Ky Holland, James Kauffman, David Michael and many others are doing amazing work to keep our community safe. We need to support this work and implement the recommendations put forth in our Climate Action Plan, as many of these recommendations may save lives if the unthinkable happens and South Anchorage has a serious fire.
How is the current Assembly doing? Are there any issues you would raise if elected?
We work together as a team on the Assembly, with mutual respect and the shared goal of helping each other help our constituents. We have worked hard to keep the Municipality of Anchorage moving forward during a public safety and state fiscal crisis. During a second term, I will continue to support efforts aimed at bolstering public health and safety, modernizing the Port of Alaska, economic recovery and greater community self-resiliency, through my work as co-chair of the Health Policy Committee and Enterprise and Utilities Oversight Committee, and as a member of the Public Safety and Budget committees. John Weddleton has been a great partner in serving South Anchorage, and I look forward to continuing to work with him as we advocate for our neighbors and our city.
Do you support the governor’s budget cuts?
The Port of Alaska needs at least hundreds of millions of dollars to modernize. How should port modernization be paid for?
After much hard work, the Municipality of Anchorage has a path forward to repair, renovate and replace the Port of Alaska. The first part of the program, replacing the petroleum cement terminal, is under way with a funding mechanism that relies on substantial grants and tariffs. What is most critical to the next part of the Port of Alaska Modernization Project is that we design an affordable port that meets the basic needs of all stakeholders. Scope and cost will drive a financing plan that would most likely include increased tariffs, federal grants, private investment by commercial users and a possible State of Alaska General Obligation bond. This is a statewide issue as 90% of the merchandise goods for 85% of Alaska’s populated areas pass through the port. It’s also an issue of national security, public health and economic stability.
Describe an ordinance or legislative issue you plan to bring forward as an assembly member, and any funding it might require.
We need to get the Anchorage Safety Patrol in operation south of Tudor to free up police and firefighters from responding to routine inebriate calls. Allocation of funds to this operation will make Anchorage safer and more efficient. A new generation of young people is getting hooked on tobacco. Vaping is rampant among middle and high schoolers. A tax on eCigarettes is coming and we should consider directing funds toward youth cessation programs.
There is a movement in the Eagle River/Chugiak district to secede from the Municipality of Anchorage. Where do you stand on EagleExit?
Government works best when it’s closest to the people. The Girdwood Board of Supervisors is a great example. We need to support our neighbors to the north in having this conversation. If they determine they want to secede, then we need to focus on a smooth transition and a mutually agreeable outcome.
What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
We all deserve to feel safe in our community. I want to know that my kids are safe as they walk home from school and play outdoors with their friends. Issues such as crime and homelessness are complex and don’t have simple solutions. We are already paying a premium for first responders and criminal justice costs. We need to focus on the root causes of crime and homelessness, as this will not only save taxpayer money but will result in a safer and healthier community.