The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage mayor to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.
BILL FALSEY | Occupation: Most recently Municipal Manager, Municipality of Anchorage (left service on Dec. 1, 2020) | Age: 41 | firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Why are you running for mayor?
I am running for mayor because I believe Anchorage’s best days are still ahead of us, and I’m invested in that future. This election is about who is best prepared to meet the current moment, and translate good intentions into real, meaningful action. I’ve helped Anchorage through some tough days before: the Nov. 2018 earthquake; the 2019 wildfire season; and as Incident Commander in 2020, overseeing our local, on-the-ground response to COVID-19. I’ve led the teams that delivered on highly complex projects like the ML&P sale and rebuilding the Port of Alaska. Now, we have to rebuild our economy, make real progress on homelessness, preserve our public safety gains and make the quality-of-life improvements that ensure Anchorage remains a world-class place to live, work and play.
2. What in your background or experience sets you apart from the other candidates and makes you suited to be an effective mayor of Anchorage?
I am the only candidate with significant executive management and local government experience. I most recently served as municipal manager, where I oversaw nine departments (police, fire, health, employee relations, traffic, transit, public works, maintenance and operations, project management and engineering); three utilities (AWWU, SWS, and ML&P); two enterprises (Port of Alaska and Merrill Field); and four offices (emergency management, transportation inspection, risk, and equal opportunity). My general-government reports comprised nearly 1500 FTEs. Before that, I was city attorney, where oversaw the civil law division, prosecutor’s office and administrative hearing office. I know the city; I know a how to build and lead successful teams; and I have a record of delivering real solutions.
3. What’s the biggest challenge facing city government and how would you address it?
The COVID pandemic will look very different by the time the new mayor takes office in July 2021. But Anchorage will still be dealing with the economic fallout. After more than a year of high unemployment, low oil prices, a challenging state fiscal climate, traumatic restaurant and small business closures and a new work-from-home culture that may permanently change the commercial real estate market, targeted support will be critical to getting our economy back to full strength and supporting our recovery. I’ll encourage new development, a more vibrant downtown and position Anchorage to thrive. Playing to our strengths as a headquarters city and a hub for tourism, we’ll remain the vibrant place we know and love — a city of unrivaled community, beauty and opportunity.
4. Describe how your administration would approach the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID is the story of two disasters: first, a public health disaster, and second, an economic disaster. In my time at the municipality, I was tasked with dealing with the first. As incident commander, my job was to make sure our local health care providers and first responders had adequate PPE, that we had adequate quarantine facilities and that the public had broad access to free COVID testing. By July, much of that work, hopefully, will be winding down, as case counts continue to fall and life gets closer to “normal.” But I will continue prioritize public health. Mass vaccination efforts will still be underway, and I will strongly support those efforts. The second disaster—the economic toll of COVID—will still be very much with us in July. As mayor, economic recovery will be my top priority.
5. What’s your assessment of how Anchorage’s city government has responded to the pandemic over the past year? What, if anything, would you have done differently? Be specific.
The city appropriately prioritized public health, kept our first responders and health care providers adequately supplied with PPE, slowed disease transmission and helped Alaska achieve best-in-the-nation levels of testing and vaccination, all while preventing our hospitals from being overwhelmed. Getting the virus under control is key to our economic recovery: until COVID levels are reduced, travel, in-person dining and general economic activity will not fully rebound. Our decisions should be based on the best available science, the lessons of history and news from the front. On those metrics, the best available information suggests that the paths that lead to the best economic outcomes are the more public health-protective paths. That said, I do think the municipality should have done a better job with affected industries. Several emergency orders were announced at Friday press conferences without much advanced warning or coordination; that would not have been my approach.
6. What role should city government play in repairing economic damage to individuals, businesses and community organizations from the pandemic?
Federal support will be key to the recovery and will likely involve a significant municipal workload. As mayor, I will stand ready to efficiently and transparently distribute whatever funds the city next receives from the federal government, on the terms required by the federal legislation. Beyond merely disbursing federal aid, the city should: first, support a robust infrastructure program to jump-start economic activity; second, spur new private sector development by assisting with necessary utility work, and incentivizing projects with positive community effects; third, process construction permits quickly and predictably; and fourth, make quality-of-life investments to reestablish and grow our tourism sector and make Anchorage a more attractive place from which to “work from anywhere.”
7. Downtown Anchorage has been hit especially hard by impacts from the pandemic, with tourism, gatherings and events greatly reduced and many businesses and organizations struggling as a result. Another difficult summer with greatly reduced tourism appears likely. What’s your vision for downtown, and what specifically are your short-term and long-term plans for repairing damage from the past year?
A vibrant, clean and safe downtown is critical to Anchorage’s success. Investments and partnerships that ensure downtown continues to thrive, and that make downtown more walkable and active will serve all of us well. Anchorage will need to assure that the local conditions needed for a robust return of tourism and a thriving restaurant and cultural scene are met. That will include everything from encouraging new construction, to using the mayor’s position to encourage residents to patronize recovering businesses, to working with the Anchorage Downtown Partnership and other organizations to engage in strong placemaking, space activation and other revitalization efforts. It can also include street configuration changes to support more open-air dining and pedestrian promenades.
8. Would you make changes to the Anchorage Police Department and policing policies? Why? Please describe in detail.
APD completed a comprehensive review of its policies and procedures manual last summer and, at my direction, posted the manual online for public review. Current policy forbids the kind of strangulation that was used to murder George Floyd, requires de-escalation and verbal warnings, prohibits warning shots, restricts shooting at moving vehicles, requires officers to minimize risks to bystanders and permits the least amount of force necessary to accomplish a lawful objective. The Department does not use no-knock warrants of the sort that resulted Breonna Taylor’s death. I support assigning mental health crisis calls out of APD. The Department of Justice is currently completing an assessment of APD, and I would use the results of that work to inform discussions about further policy changes.
9. Is the Anchorage Police Department adequately staffed?
In 2015, the Police Executive Research Forum reviewed Anchorage’s crime statistics and officers’ workloads, and concluded that Anchorage, which then had 369 sworn officers, should have 446. Today, we are much closer, at about 435. That’s a success story, which has led to real declines in crime across the board. It also allowed the department to extend service to the Turnagain Arm communities and the Seward Highway, after the Troopers left. The focus now should be on better criminal intelligence and investigatory capabilities, as well as improved customer service — activating 311 and outfitting officers with cellphones were commonsense first steps. In the near term, additional staffing should likely be on the non-sworn side — 911 dispatchers, records clerks, etc. — to improve response times.
10. Do you support the bond issue on this spring’s municipal ballot that would fund public-safety technology upgrades, including body-worn and in-vehicle cameras for police officers? Explain.
Yes — I drafted the proposition. In-car and body-worn cameras increase trust, accountability and officer safety, and the department has a critical need to update its dispatch and records management systems. APD’s in-car cameras were funded by one-time state grants received nearly a decade ago; they are nearing the end of their useful life. The dispatch system, which 911 operators use to assign officers to incidents, is at risk of critical failure and must be replaced; a new records-management system will help prosecutors efficiently process cases and improve the department’s public reporting of crime data. The proposition going to voters is nearly identical in form to Prop. 9, which voters approved to refresh the fire department’s medical equipment in 2020. I strongly support the measure.
11. Describe, with specifics, how you would expand and diversify Anchorage’s economy.
In my view, government does best, not when it makes direct investments in seafood processing plants or experimental barley farms, but when it ensures that the baseline conditions for economic growth are in place. Locally, that means: first, ensuring that local taxation and utility rates are reasonable; second, providing quality, reliable local infrastructure, such as roads and the Port of Alaska; third, supporting a strong housing market; fourth, maintaining quality public schools; fifth, investing in items, like parks, trails and the arts, that improve local quality-of-life; sixth, ensuring adequate public safety; and seventh, supporting state investments in our university system, which provides high economic returns and helps build a culture of innovation and entrepreneurialism. Anchorage can also help foster new industries by, for example, investing in new energy technologies at city buildings, marketing to new tourism segments, and supporting local startups though the 49th State Angel fund.
12. What’s your vision for Anchorage’s economy in the future?
My vision is of an Anchorage that has played to its strengths as a headquarters city, a health care stronghold, a logistics center, a hub for tourism and a university town, and that has continued to make the quality-of-life investments that attract and retain new talent in the post-COVID, work-from-anywhere, Zoom-enabled economy. Anchorage is a city of unrivaled community, beauty and opportunity; we should assume our position as world-class, premier City of the North. As the oil sector declines, we should be encouraging a culture of innovation and homegrown entrepreneurialism, in close collaboration with our local universities. There is no world-class city that is not also a “university town,” and the greatest economic returns will come from greater investments in our human capital.
13. Is taxation in Anchorage too high/about right/too low? Explain.
Anchorage’s taxation is about right for the level of service it currently provides. To put it in perspective, Anchorage is today one of the least-taxed large cities in America — and provisions of our local municipal charter mean local policy choices are unlikely to cause that to change. Voters adopted a tax cap in 1983 that limits and ties permissible increases in local taxes to changes in inflation, population and new construction. The tax cap has forced a fiscal discipline on the city and placed a premium on administrations finding new efficiencies; hiring 100 new officers, for instance, could not be accomplished without finding cuts elsewhere in the municipal budget.
14. Do you have ideas for alternative sources of city revenue? Explain.
Because of COVID, it will be another year before bed taxes fully recover, but it looks likely that Congress will provide targeted relief to ensure that cities across the nation do not have to make further cuts to essential services. (Of note, approximately 75 cents of every local tax dollar collected goes to police, fire, parks, roads or schools). Meanwhile, reductions in traditional city revenues may be partly offset by growth in the sustainable dividend that the municipality receives from the MOA Trust Fund (the local “permanent fund” into which the proceeds of the municipality’s sale of the Anchorage Telephone Utility and, more recently, ML&P were deposited); additional payments from Chugach Electric will be put into the fund each year for the next several decades, increasing the dividend.
15. Are there city programs or services you would cut? Explain.
Virtually every department other than police and fire has seen cuts over the last decade. Scroll through the list of municipal departments, and you will not find “optional” business lines: police, fire, parks, road maintenance and construction, traffic engineering, health, cemetery, public transit, libraries, building-development services, planning, real estate, treasury, finance, property appraisal, controller, purchasing, HR, facilities, fleet, internal audit, IT, municipal attorney, prosecutor, etc. That said, the municipality established a “film permit” process sometime in the Sullivan administration that I think merits a second-look; it’s not clear to me that the process is necessary.
16. Are there city programs or services you would expand? Explain.
As mayor, I would work to expand early childhood education offerings in the city. The hard numbers show pre-K makes good economic sense. Study after study shows long-term benefits: positive brain development in a child’s early years means a child is more likely to succeed in school, find steady, meaningful employment, enjoy better health and stay out of the prison system. By not investing in our youngest, we’re “saving ourselves poor.” Quality child care exists in Anchorage, but it’s wildly expensive. Because our university system is subsidized, it can cost more to send a 3-year-old to preschool than it does to send a young adult to UAA. We’re still running a system that, for most families, all but forces one parent to drop out of the workforce.
17. What’s your view of current Anchorage land-use plans? Would you push for changes?
Anchorage’s land-use plans were developed with robust community participation, and I generally support them. I am open to considering changes that advance community goals, such as greater availability of affordable and workforce housing, and quality options for seniors, such as broader availability “accessory dwelling units,” or ADUs.
18. Homelessness remains a persistent, significant problem in Anchorage. What specifically would you do differently from previous administrations?
Homelessness is a visible and growing problem in the community. It’s unsafe for those living outside, and it’s causing negative impacts to our greenbelts, neighborhoods, and business districts. There is a perception that the municipality has for years been spending a tremendous amount on homelessness. But that isn’t true. As a community, we’ve invested very little in direct homeless response. But homelessness is now off the charts—we have 200 more people in the shelters today that we’ve ever had in any prior year, we have nearly 400 people living in the Sullivan Arena and more than 150 in other settings around town. We need additional shelter capacity in new locations — selected through an open, transparent and community-driven process that involves credible business plans and no surprises, a rapid, more effective camp abatement program that connects people to services and better coordination with private partners to make more timely and effective use of philanthropic investments.
19. Name a program dealing with homelessness in Anchorage that you believe is working.
The “Home for Good,” housing-first pilot project is showing great promise. Enrollment began in July 2019. By June 30, 2020, of 21 people housed, 19 remained in stable housing. Individuals in the pilot experienced 85% fewer arrests, 85% fewer Safety Center intakes, 63% fewer stays in shelter and 44% fewer emergency medical service trips. The project was initially funded through a combination of federal, state, and philanthropic grants; a segment of the new alcohol tax is allocated to further expand the project. Meanwhile, we’ve learned through the COVID emergency response that placing people in individual units can be done successfully, and without negative community impacts. Together, the two suggest that continuing to invest in “housing first” solutions is a sensible path forward.
20. Please discuss your commitment to transparency and openness in Anchorage municipal government. Do you have suggestions for improving either?
I am fully committed to transparency and openness in municipal government. In my briefings after the Nov. 2018 earthquake, during the 2019 wildfire season and as incident commander overseeing the city’s on-the-ground response to COVID, I tried always to “tell the truth, and boldly” — good, bad or other. Doing so not only builds trust, it appropriately attends to the fact that municipal employees are paid by, and serve, the public. That said, the municipality’s public records process could certainly be improved. Collecting and producing records is no one person’s job in the city, because, historically, there hasn’t been the volume of work to justify a dedicated position. But the workload has steadily grown, and responses now come slower than they should.
21. What’s your assessment of Anchorage’s transportation infrastructure? Do you have a plan to improve it? How?
Despite improvements to the PeopleMover bus system and our trail network, Anchorage remains predominately a car city. For motorized traffic, our roads work pretty well. For non-motorized traffic, the city still has work to do — but it is moving in the right direction. Recent initiatives such as “vision zero,” which outlines a strategy to eliminate all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy and equitable transportation for everyone, and the move to “complete streets,” like the rebuilt section of Spenard Road, that equally prioritize pedestrian and bicycle safety, show the way. As mayor, I would continue in those directions, improve trail connectivity, and ensure that federal funds received through the AMATS process are not used solely for highway mega-projects.
22. Are there specific transportation projects you would initiate in the municipality if elected? Explain.
The most critical transportation project is completing the Port of Alaska rebuild. Much of what we eat, buy and wear, the vast majority of the cement used in Alaska’s construction projects, half of the jet fuel used at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, and substantially all of the fuel used by JBER comes across its docks. Replacement of the first facility is well underway – on time and on budget. But the work is not finished — and we’re racing against the clock. The main docks are over 50-years old, and are failing. To keep Alaska safe and in business, we can’t stop making progress — this one has to get done. I’ve dedicated significant efforts to the project, built stronger relationships with companies that do business the port, and am committed to implementing an affordable solution.
23. The past year has been marked by increasing civic discord in Anchorage. What would you do to reduce frustration, distrust and anger that increasingly has characterized civic conversation?
The mayor has the opportunity, and responsibility, to set a tone of civility and respect. That means proactively reaching out to key stakeholders, welcoming everyone into a collaborative effort of joint problem-solving, really listening, and, after arriving at a decision, explaining candidly, not just what the decision is, but the reasoning behind it. It also means working to maintain a relentless focus, not on waging political battles, but on the essential business of the municipality: solving problems and delivering real, on-the-ground solutions for residents.
24. What other important issue would you like to discuss?
The summer of 2019 should serve as a wake-up call for Anchorage about the increasing risk of wildfire danger. Anchorage has work to do to ready itself for increasing climate disruption — including building new secondary access roads and improving fire breaks — and to better position the city for the inevitable energy policy changes coming from Washington, D.C. Increasing our investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies will be key. As municipal manager, I increased the city’s use of rooftop solar arrays, hybrid vehicles, and supported a new “C-PACE” program to finance improvements at commercial properties. We should next investigate whether further legal changes can help independent power producers bring additional wind and solar power to the Railbelt energy grid.