Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s administration is proposing changes to how money from the city’s new alcohol tax is spent, largely devoting it to homelessness. Groups that pushed for the tax say the changes would improperly and disproportionately spend the funds, going against what voters intended when they approved the tax last year.
After a number of earlier attempts to pass an alcohol tax failed, Anchorage voters approved one in a 2020 ballot initiative. The tax kicked in on Feb. 1 and is projected to raise between $11 million and $15 million a year. The 2022 proposal budgets for $13.2 million in alcohol tax revenue.
When voters adopted the tax, they did so with specific rules as to how the money can be spent. The funding must go toward three different spending area buckets: public safety, such as police and first responders; preventing child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence; and funding for homelessness, mental health and substance misuse treatment. The money also can’t be used to backfill programs, meaning it can’t pay for programs or positions that already existed.
Under Bronson’s budget proposal, nearly two-thirds of the funds would go toward homelessness. Bronson has said he sees homelessness as the city’s most prevalent and urgent issue, and the issue is also a priority for the Anchorage Assembly.
Still, Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who helped sponsor the alcohol tax proposal that voters approved, said he and others who pushed for the tax have concerns with some of the cuts and spending in the mayor’s budget.
“One is that it’s not clear that all of the things he’s trying to do fit within those buckets. Two, it appears he is backfilling positions, particularly within the Health Department. And three, he’s making cuts to some programs that are really valuable, particularly in prevention,” Dunbar said.
One of the biggest changes is cutting funding for early childhood education grants in half, from $2 million to $1 million.
“Cutting half of the funding to pre-K — that does not align with wanting a better future for our community,” said Tiffany Hall, CEO of Recover Alaska, a group focused on reducing excessive alcohol use and harm, and a proponent of the ballot initiative.
As proposed, a majority of the budget focuses on emergency response rather than long-term solutions and programs that focus on prevention, such as early childhood education, she said.
“This is work of helping folks today and then them not necessarily falling into substance use disorders or violence 10 or 20 years down the road. We know that it works, we know that it pays off,” Hall said.
Hall said the amount of money going toward homelessness seems disproportionate. Those funds are also focused mostly on emergency response, rather than programs that prevent homelessness or those that move people into permanent housing, she said.
For example, the proposed budget shows a $2 million increase in funding for a “shelter, day center and/or treatment center,” which falls under the homelessness category.
“Providers know that overnight shelter and/or those types of emergency services are not the answer, and that really the answer needs to be permanent supportive housing, and it just doesn’t look like that’s what is in this budget,” Hall said. No funding is set aside specifically for substance misuse prevention and treatment, and that’s also a problem, she said.
A spokesman for the mayor did not respond to questions about why the Bronson administration cut early childhood education grants or why the administration has proposed that the majority of the funds go toward homelessness.
The pandemic drastically worsened the city’s homelessness crisis, and Bronson and the Assembly have been hyper-focused on finding common ground on homelessness policy. Earlier this month they reached a compromise on an “exit strategy” from using Sullivan Arena as a mass care homeless shelter, the result of a lengthy negotiation process after clashes over a previous Bronson proposal for a 450-person temporary shelter in East Anchorage.
Another big budget change Bronson wants to make to city spending of alcohol tax revenue would cut funding in half for the city’s new Mobile Crisis Team and move the remaining funding from the fire department to the police department. The program currently sends a mental health clinician with a paramedic to respond to behavioral health calls, and many see it as a key step toward improving the city’s mental health system because it reduces unnecessary hospital visits and arrests, and connects people in crisis to resources.
“Cutting the funding in half and turning it into a private contract run by the police department essentially ends the Mental Health First Responders program or the mobile crisis team as we know it. And I think to do so is unwise,” Dunbar said.
The mayor does not intend to cut the services, but “to provide the same or better service at a lower cost” through the police department, Corey Allen Young, spokesman for Bronson, said in a statement.
Bronson believes the move will be more operationally efficient and fiscally and operationally responsible, he said. That’s because the police department currently has dedicated resources to addressing mental health, its Mobile Intervention Team, which partners officers with a behavioral health clinician or social service specialist on calls, Young said. The alcohol tax funding will allow APD to “augment and expand” that program, he said.
Dunbar said restoring funding to the fire department’s program will be his focus as the Assembly tackles the budget amendment process.
Young said the about $750,000 in savings from the cut is being reallocated to pay for other priorities, including an epidemiologist, public health nurses and a nurse supervisor in the Health Department, and toward other homeless services.
Proponents of the alcohol tax are questioning whether those positions — an epidemiologist and nurses — are an appropriate use of the funds under the three areas of public safety, child abuse and domestic violence prevention and homelessness. Dunbar said it seems like the money would be backfilling already-existing positions, an illegal use. Still, they’re good programs, he said.
“We don’t want to eliminate those public health nursing jobs, for example,” Dunbar said. “The question is whether we can legally do it with this source of funds. And if we can’t, then the whole budget needs some reworking.”