The Anchorage Daily News asked candidates for Anchorage mayor to answer a series of issue questions. Read all of them here.
FORREST DUNBAR | Occupation: Attorney and judge advocate, Army National Guard | Age: 36 | forrestdunbar.com
1. Why are you running for mayor?
I’m running for mayor because I want to make Anchorage an even better place to live, and because we need fact-based leadership to beat COVID and get our economy back on track. I believe Anchorage can be an exciting city with strong public safety, thriving businesses, good-paying jobs and a top-tier education system. My time on the Assembly, as well as the work I’ve done with the Muldoon Farmers Market, Anchorage Park Foundation and Scenic Foothills Community Council, has prepared me to hit the ground running on Day One. Our community has advantages few cities share, including world-class trails, a deep Indigenous history and a diverse population. Those advantages position us for a strong economic recovery and long-term growth thereafter. Our best days are still ahead of us.
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 currently in office and actively doing the work needed to get Anchorage through this pandemic. I’m proud of the spirit of teamwork we have cultivated on the Assembly, including during my terms as chair. We must maintain that ethos of teamwork as we work to build a strong, inclusive, vibrant community. Beyond the policy work, I’ve spent years listening to residents from all political backgrounds and walks of life on our budget issues, climate change, and public safety concerns — I know the community and understand the complexity of the problems we face. As mayor, I will continue to listen and won’t be afraid to make the tough decisions needed to move our city forward toward an economically thriving future.
3. What’s the biggest challenge facing city government and how would you address it?
The biggest challenge we face is getting our economy back on track while keeping a balanced budget. On top of addressing the immediate COVID crisis, we must preserve our excellent bond rating that keeps the cost of municipal borrowing low, diversify our revenue streams, and move away from over-reliance on property taxes and the unstable State budget. We need to find a balance between providing critical services and keeping rates, fees, and property taxes affordable. On the Assembly, I helped ensure that the proceeds from the sale of ML&P were deposited into the Municipal Trust, supported the fuel tax, approved targeted cuts to every department but public safety and voted for audits that returned millions to the municipality. I will continue to prioritize fiscal responsibility as mayor.
4. Describe how your administration would approach the coronavirus pandemic.
Getting through the public health crisis and getting our economy back to work will be my administration’s top priority. We can’t beat COVID by pretending it doesn’t exist, and we can’t beat it with anti-mask rhetoric or crowded indoor fundraisers. My administration will use a fact-based approach to address the pandemic, and will listen to public health experts on necessary measures. We will disperse new COVID relief funding quickly and equitably; we must build stronger community coalitions and use existing channels to get information out to small business owners about grants, to those eligible for the vaccine on appointment availability and to residents about important health precautions they can take to slow the spread and ensure our community recovers as quickly as possible.
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.
We have made tough calls and taken tough votes this past year. In an unprecedented time, the residents of Anchorage have sacrificed and lifted each other up — as a result, our community has had far lower rates of hospitalization and death than many Lower 48 cities. During our first round of federal aid, I fought for funding for child care relief, rental and mortgage assistance funds and small business grants, particularly to the hospitality and tourism industry. Those should continue to be priorities as more aid becomes available. I wish the municipality had been able to distribute funds faster, and I know that the current administration is still working to ensure the entirety of funds are disbursed. My administration will work to simplify disbursal processes and get the next rounds of federal aid out faster, while continuing to target those funds to the industries most impacted by the pandemic.
6. What role should city government play in repairing economic damage to individuals, businesses and community organizations from the pandemic?
The municipality should do everything it can to repair the economic damage caused by the pandemic. There are currently a number of programs to reduce fees, waive regulations or otherwise get folks through the crisis. However, no local entity has the resources to undo the harms of COVID-19 on our own; we must continue to advocate for federal aid and then work to disburse those funds quickly. We must also understand that the harms of the pandemic go beyond dollars and cents; there are real mental health concerns associated with the suffering and death COVID-19 has inflicted on our community. Part of our recovery will be this psychological recovery, and the municipality should continue to direct resources to programs like additional counselors and the Mental Health First Responder Team.
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?
Downtown should be the premier location in Alaska for live entertainment, convenient shopping and award-winning art. My administration will seek to transform 4th Avenue and E Street into pedestrian promenades, working with the nearby businesses, as these have been successful in other cities in increasing commerce and safety. We can also showcase existing trails, murals and shops with a better wayfinding system — one that incorporates Indigenous places and language — and work to improve the brand of both downtown and Anchorage for visitors. In addition, making downtown feel safe and vital means having “eyes on the street” and folks actually living downtown. Regulatory changes, incentives and leveraging the municipality’s own property holdings can make affordable downtown housing a reality.
8. Would you make changes to the Anchorage Police Department and policing policies? Why? Please describe in detail.
Since I joined the Assembly in 2016, we have worked to rebuild the APD, putting 100 new officers on the street. We are starting to see the return on that investment; APD recently stood up a cold-case unit and has more resources to address theft and violent crime. Those improvements, in turn, have been reflected in our crime statistics, which have declined since 2017. There is still more work to be done — we need more non-sworn personnel in particular — but progress has been made. At the same time, we must continue to build trust between the Department and the community. That means improving transparency policies, investing in supplementary programs like the Mental Health First Responders, listening to community groups when they raise concerns and implementing an effective body camera system.
9. Is the Anchorage Police Department adequately staffed?
As mentioned above, the administration and Assembly have made a concerted effort to increase resources for the APD over the last five years. While our officer-to-resident ratios are still far lower than many similarly-sized cities in the Lower 48, I do not believe that our residents support the large increase in taxes that would be required to reach those ratios. Therefore, my administration will focus on maintaining our current level of sworn officers and ensuring that we avoid the unacceptable situation we found ourselves during the Sullivan administration. That being said, we DO need additional non-sworn staff, like dispatchers, evidence clerks and technicians. Improving staffing levels also helps reduce overtime hours and can both improve results and lead to cost savings.
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 support Ballot Measure 4, the special tax levy for APD technology upgrades. These upgrades are necessary for effective data collection, storage and report processing, and I was a cosponsor of the version of the ordinance that put this levy on the ballot. The Assembly put a similar measure on the ballot last year for the leasing of medical technology to the Anchorage Fire Department, which has worked well. With regards to the body-worn camera portion of the proposition, both APD and the community have expressed strong support for body cameras; this proposition is a sustainable way to fund them. I have spoken with community members and police officers extensively on this issue and will advocate for strong policies to ensure this technology is used in an effective, equitable manner.
11. Describe, with specifics, how you would expand and diversify Anchorage’s economy.
Even as we recover from this pandemic, we’ll face economic headwinds from the state’s unresolved fiscal crisis. As mayor, I will provide certainty for businesses by delivering reliable services with a balanced budget, protecting the m municipality’s AAA bond rating and completing vital infrastructure projects such as rebuilding the Port of Alaska. Ultimately our growth will be driven by the individuals and businesses who choose to invest in Anchorage. As we compete with the rest of the country for a workforce that can work from anywhere, we need to make Anchorage the obvious choice. That means incentivizing and removing barriers to affordable housing development, investing in and marketing our world-class trail and parks system, cultivating the independent visitor economy, revitalizing our downtown, fostering a sense of Indigenous place, partnering with the university and proactively going to bat for every opportunity that will bring the jobs of the future to Anchorage.
12. What’s your vision for Anchorage’s economy in the future?
I believe an economic boom is coming for Anchorage should we seize the opportunity. We can be a vibrant city that attracts and retains a trained and talented workforce with world-class outdoor recreation opportunities and walkable, bikeable neighborhoods where our cultural diversity is on full display, where child care is accessible and high-quality and housing is affordable. Anchorage can be a city where students get a top-tier education, starting with pre-K. We can be a city that exports value-added products, while importing visitors from across the world who will add hundreds of millions of dollars by staying longer. And by engaging every part of our community, we can ensure that benefits of growth are shared equitably across the municipality, without leaving any neighborhood behind.
13. Is taxation in Anchorage too high/about right/too low? Explain.
No one likes paying taxes, and holding down the tax burden while maintaining adequate levels of police, fire, snow removal and other services is a key balancing act for any administration. Candidates who promise giant tax cuts without equal cuts to core services are either misinformed or attempting to deceive voters. That being said, Anchorage is over-reliant on property taxes, particularly residential property taxes. We have taken steps in recent years to diversify our revenue streams through efforts like the motor fuels tax and the interest revenues from the ML&P sale. As we look to meet increased costs of infrastructure maintenance and development in the future, we should work hard to look for sources of revenues other than property taxes, such as cost-causer/cost-payer utility fees.
14. Do you have ideas for alternative sources of city revenue? Explain.
As stated above, I supported the motor fuel tax and generating interest revenues by depositing the revenues from the ML&P sale. The people of Anchorage also voted in 2020 to pass an alcohol tax that goes to fund child abuse and domestic violence prevention, drug and alcohol treatment, first responders, homelessness services and more. There have been additional, small changes that have raised more revenues, like removing the tobacco tax exemption for vaping products, but the largest upcoming discussion around alternative revenues will be the proposed stormwater utility. I supported research funding for the stormwater utility, but whether it is an acceptable alternative to bonding for drainage projects will come down to the details of the proposal and in-depth community conversations.
15. Are there city programs or services you would cut? Explain.
When I go door-knocking in East Anchorage, I seldom encounter residents who want less snow removal, less road maintenance, fewer fire personnel on call, or slower police response times. There are always opportunities for better efficiency and improved customer service to residents, of course, and my administration will aggressively seek those out. But in general, the municipality delivers core services with tight budgets, and unlike some other levels of government, those services impact our everyday lives.
16. Are there city programs or services you would expand? Explain.
I support expanding programs that prove they can deliver a higher-quality service while generating cost savings for taxpayers — programs that prevent expensive problems from happening in the first place. For example, the CORE Team is a special unit dedicated to reducing EMS calls by proactively reaching out to the highest utilizers of EMS services to address the underlying causes of their frequent 9-1-1 calls. In the first year of the program, EMS encounters from CORE Team patients dropped by 43%, freeing up paramedic capacity to respond elsewhere, and saving $500,000 in ER bills. Investing in children has a similar effect. Effective early childhood education and child care pay huge dividends in economic, health and public safety outcomes. I strongly support making those investments.
17. What’s your view of current Anchorage land-use plans? Would you push for changes?
We are already entering into the next cycle of Anchorage’s overarching land-use plan, and in general I support the goal of increased density and improved multi-modal transportation infrastructure in the service of livability, walkability and affordability. My administration will work with community partners, businesses and the Assembly to evaluate our plans, and will implement additional code changes (where appropriate) for mixed use, in-fill and vertical development. If Anchorage is to grow, it will increasingly be “up” rather than “out.” But the key is that we do so in a smart, transparent way that incorporates best practices from around the nation while simultaneously protecting the quality of life that makes Anchorage a special place to live.
18. Homelessness remains a persistent, significant problem in Anchorage. What specifically would you do differently from previous administrations?
The long-term solution to homelessness is appropriate, affordable housing, coupled with supportive services in some cases. If we focus on camp abatement alone, people experiencing homelessness will have no choice but to move from park to park; that’s not a solution. There are also constitutional limits to what the city can do. Fortunately, revenues from the 2020 alcohol tax are dedicated directly to substance misuse treatment, prevention programs and transitional housing. I am also encouraged by the news that additional federal grants and major private investments are coming online this year too. Finally, my administration will seek better coordination between the municipality and private, state and federal partners, as well as facilitate better communication between those entities.
19. Name a program dealing with homelessness in Anchorage that you believe is working.
Choosing Our Roots is a host home program for LGBT+ youth, founded in 2019. This program offers safe homes, reliable mentors and community support to young people in need. LGBT+ youth experience homelessness at a higher rate, and interventions like this have lasting positive impacts. In 2020, COR housed 13 youth, helped match 9 youth into other stable housing and provided support to 33 youth through one-on-one mentorship. I would also point to Path to Independence, a public-private partnership between the municipality and local organizations that pairs long-term housing with employment opportunities, and Home For Good, a pay-for-success program that delivers housing and intensive case management, where the muni only pays if there are successful outcomes. These programs are making real progress.
20. Please discuss your commitment to transparency and openness in Anchorage municipal government. Do you have suggestions for improving either?
I am committed to making our local government transparent and accessible. This starts by ensuring that the municipal website is easy for constituents to use. While the new COVID-related portions of the site are user-friendly, some of the legacy sections are difficult to navigate. Constituents also need a better calendar of municipal meetings. Even after we fully resume in-person public meetings, I will work with the Assembly chair to continue online events and provide flexible testimony options. My administration will hold more town halls on the municipal budget, listening sessions on important topics, and public Q&A sessions. We will utilize technology to further increase accessibility and improve reporting tools for things like potholes, abandoned cars and ADA accessibility issues.
21. What’s your assessment of Anchorage’s transportation infrastructure? Do you have a plan to improve it? How?
A well-connected city, with multiple ways of getting around, is a more livable city and one better positioned for economic success. More and safer bike lanes, better-connected trails, safer pedestrian crossings, more public transit options and well-designed traffic calming are all necessary to create a transportation system built around people, not just cars. Our infrastructure must be updated with an eye towards the future — we can slow our carbon emissions and protect our Arctic from further climate change, while simultaneously making Anchorage a more enjoyable place to live. Protected bike lanes, well-marked trails and reliable public transportation all create additional economic and health benefits, better accessibility to all parts of the city and support a more resilient community.
22. Are there specific transportation projects you would initiate in the municipality if elected? Explain.
I will champion transportation projects that improve connectivity, increase pedestrian and bike options, reduce traffic, have community buy-in, and make Anchorage a more livable city. There are several community-based plans that already exist with long lists of projects that would meet those criteria. With the new federal administration prioritizing infrastructure spending, we will have a unique opportunity to turn our plans into projects: for example, a pedestrian and bike overpass on Lake Otis below Tudor will improve safety and trail connectivity; more life-safety access roads will ensure residents aren’t trapped on the wrong side of a forest fire. Building out our world-class trail system to connect more neighborhoods will improve property values and economic activity across Anchorage.
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?
Along with the pandemic, the co-occurring challenge facing Anchorage is the rise of “fact-free,” conspiratorial politics, disconnected from public health, reasonable dialogue and the realities of governing. Our community cannot heal and our economy cannot recover if misinformation and lack of civility continue to spread. It will take a commitment from all of us, from across the political spectrum, to reject this style of politics and recommit to fact-based discourse. My administration will be committed to better communication, transparency and facilitation of dialogue to help this happen. We will also assist community groups who seek to make the Assembly chambers more welcoming, and will make agencies more responsive when residents need answers and information on vital programs.
24. What other important issue would you like to discuss?
We all benefit by acknowledging and embracing the fact that we are on the ancestral and current homelands of the Dena’ina people, and that Anchorage is home to Alaska Native people from across the state. Building that recognition into the names of our public places, the history lessons we teach and issues we focus on will both allow for healing and deepen our connection to this place. On the Assembly I sponsored the first Indigenous naming ordinance, partnered with organizations working on the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and co-sponsored a law to establish government-to-government relations with the Native Village of Eklutna. There is much more to be done, and my administration will ensure that our Indigenous community has their rightful place at the table.