The two candidates for Anchorage mayor, who have sparred over issues like homelessness and the pandemic, are also taking widely different approaches to city spending.
Dave Bronson and Forrest Dunbar are heading into a runoff election on May 11.
“We’re going to have to look at cutting just about everything — probably everything except the police department for now,” Bronson said at a Wednesday debate hosted by Alaska’s News Source. That includes cutting funding to the school district, he said.
Bronson later said in an emailed statement that population is declining as well as money from the state, and that “the notion that Anchorage can continue to grow the scope of government is nonsensical.”
Dunbar, a twice-elected Assembly member from East Anchorage, criticized Bronson’s plan to cut. Dunbar recently voted to pass the city’s 2021 budget.
“If we want to be an economically competitive city with the rest of the world, with the rest of the country, we have to offer unique quality of life. That means safe streets, good schools, things like parks and trails,” he said. “We can’t have huge cuts to these services and expect people to want to move here, to remain here, to start businesses here or to retire here.”
Bronson in his emailed statement said it is time to cut government costs “in a measured and deliberate manner before we lose the opportunity to do so.”
“We must operate our city as if it were a business, leverage resources, reduce redundancies, and focus on essential services, which will in turn reduce costs and create a sustainable foundation to serve the people of Anchorage for years to come,” he said.
Dunbar in an interview Thursday said that if he had seen places in the city’s budget where significant cuts could be made, he would have pursued those cuts. He also doesn’t see areas in the budget for large growth, he said.
“I don’t see the need for significant new taxes or increase in the size and scope of government,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar pointed out that the city has made cuts in recent years to some departments while increasing funding for public safety.
Still, during Wednesday’s debate, Bronson targeted Dunbar over the city’s budget and increasing property taxes. The tax bill has grown while the city’s population has shrunk, he said.
“I’d like Mr. Dunbar to answer, when does that end? Why does government always keep growing?” Bronson said.
Bronson said that the school district, with its shrinking enrollment but climbing budget, is a big part of the problem. (The school district has predicted it will regain about 4,000 students once schools are fully reopened, according to its budget.)
Dunbar said the city has taken steps to reduce overreliance on property taxes, such as instituting the fuel and alcohol taxes, and putting money into a municipal trust from the sale of Municipal Light & Power last year.
“That’s going to generate revenues for generations and offset property taxes,” Dunbar said.
This year, the biggest driver of property taxes is that the state is not funding bond debt reimbursement for the municipality on bonds that were issued decades ago, he said.
“The Legislature and the governor have decided not to fund that. Because of that, property taxes are going to rise. But that is something that’s outside the control of the municipality,” Dunbar said.
Even with minimal state funding, the city is now more financially independent than it was five years ago, Dunbar said.
“We’ve been working to hold down residential property taxes, and will continue to do so, and will frankly avoid some of the schemes that Mr. Bronson is planning that would raise your property taxes,” he said.
Bronson has been a vocal opponent of the city’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, criticizing its previous emergency orders that limited or shut down businesses, as well as the city’s current mask mandate.
He has proposed to rebate property taxes of businesses that were shut down during the pandemic, which would direct stimulus money to where it’s most needed, he said.
Dunbar supported the emergency orders, “all of which nearly compelled businesses to shut down, either in part or in whole, even as he compelled those same small business owners to pay property taxes — their full property taxes — and that is, I think, a moral failure. It’s not right,” Bronson said.
Dunbar said that Bronson’s plan to rebate those taxes could only mean massive cuts across the city’s budget, or would cause a large increase in property taxes to others in the municipality.
“You want to do this tax rebate to businesses, the way the tax cap works, that means either you have a huge cut to services, or you’re going to shift the tax burden on to residential property taxpayers,” Dunbar said.
Dunbar also said that the city has given out millions in grants to struggling businesses to help make up for the closures and the economic impact of the pandemic.
“Was it enough? No,” Dunbar said. “But we were hoping there will be more through the American Rescue Plan to specifically get grants to those businesses,” he said.
Bronson said he thinks his plan to rebate taxes will work, and that he would offset the impact to the city budget with those federal relief funds.
“Until we find out how many businesses apply for these funds, it is impossible to know the amount,” Bronson said in the emailed statement. “Likewise, until we know how much federal stimulus money is available, we don’t know how much money, in aggregate, will be able to offset rebates directly from property taxes going forward.”