Anchorage

Anchorage Assembly passes new pandemic relief package, calls on Congress for more assistance

The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday night passed a $15.4 million economic stimulus package to help the city get through the latest round of business closures, which went into effect last week.

The package is the result of city officials scraping the bottom of the barrel of federal CARES Act funds to reallocate money to help small businesses, the hospitality industry, renters and homeowners, and people struggling to buy daily necessities like groceries.

“We know that $15.4 million will not meet the need that exists in this community,” Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson said during the Tuesday meeting. “We are doing our best to provide a short-term lifeline while Congress negotiates a stimulus bill.”

The resolution, which was unanimously sponsored by the Assembly, also passed unanimously.

Of the $15.4 million, $7.4 million will go to rental and mortgage relief, which will allow the program to extend into 2021.

Small businesses affected by the acting mayor’s “hunker-down” order will have a total of $6.4 million in grants available. The fund for hospitality businesses already has $7 million in it, meaning a total of $13.4 million in grants would be available.

The resolution would also fund another $1 million for a voucher program to pay for things like groceries, medication, diapers and gasoline.

A program that pays local restaurants to provide meals to people in need will see another $600,000.

[Optimism for pandemic relief bill grows in Congress as pressure builds on leaders]

The package is largely funded by $12 million in CARES Act funds set aside in case the state didn’t fund a local match for Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster funds. The state said it would fund the match, making the money available for economic relief. During the meeting, Assemblyman Chris Constant said the state could back out of that agreement, leaving taxpayers to backfill the money reallocated Tuesday.

Nine people testified on the resolution Tuesday, nearly all in support but voicing frustration with the city for not allocating more money for small businesses, and doing so sooner.

“I am glad to see this Assembly offer businesses more relief,” said one woman. “But in the same breath, shame on you for making them beg on their knees for help since April.”

Bronson Frye told the Assembly he’s heard the passion of several residents criticizing how the Assembly has managed CARES Act funds. He said he thanks the members with equal passion.

“One of the definitions of leadership, that I think is the finest, is doing the right thing for the right reason, even if that is not the easy thing to do,” Frye said.

Some citizens argued Quinn-Davidson is unfairly targeting bars and restaurants with her closure.

In a report during the meeting, Quinn-Davidson said those locations are more dangerous than businesses like grocery stores because people spend a prolonged period of time in close proximity when they go to a bar or restaurant.

Quinn-Davidson participated in the meeting via phone, as she announced last weekend that she tested positive for COVID-19. She said she’s doing well and experiencing cold-like symptoms.

She said she asked the Assembly to approve the new funding package, understanding that the hospitality industry is feeling an outsized impact from the pandemic.

“It’s absolutely not fair that certain industries naturally involve the factors that help COVID-19 spread,” she said. “Those businesses and workers are shouldering the brunt of the responsibility of making our community safer.”

Quinn-Davidson said it will likely be another week or two before the city sees the impact of the closure, but she’s hopeful it will lower daily case numbers.

The body also passed a resolution calling on Congress to pass another economic relief bill.

One thing the Assembly plans to do with added money is provide up to $5,000 in business personal property tax relief. The Assembly passed an ordinance to do just that Tuesday night, though it’s reliant on a new funding package, which continues to be debated in Congress.

The ordinance was reworked from one that Assemblywoman Crystal Kennedy brought forward in November. That version was not tied to a new economic relief package, and didn’t have a funding source. Rather, Kennedy intended the city to cut the budget to accommodate whatever revenue loss it incurred from the property tax relief.

The ordinance failed, in part because there was no analysis estimating how much it would cost the city.

On Tuesday, Assemblyman John Weddleton put forth an amendment that deleted tying the implementation of the tax relief to the city receiving more federal aid.

“If we are going to do this, we should do it for real and not say it’s contingent on something that may or may not happen,” Weddleton said.

Anchorage Chief Fiscal Officer Alex Slivka said Weddleton’s amendment could put the city in a bind if the federal aid package doesn’t come through, or if it’s less than anticipated. In that circumstance, it could lead to an increase in taxes or the city laying off employees, he said.

“It’s either going to get paid for out of taxes or it’s going to get paid for out of budget cuts,” Slivka said. “That money isn’t going to come from heaven.”

Weddleton’s amendment ultimately failed 6-4, and the ordinance was passed 9-1 with Assemblyman Kameron Perez-Verdia voting against it.

Dustin Darden, a frequent candidate for local office who can become emotional while testifying at Assembly meetings and is regularly removed from the chambers, refused to leave Tuesday after Assembly Chair Felix Rivera asked security to remove him. He was handcuffed and removed by Anchorage police and charged with trespassing.

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