The Anchorage Assembly passed the city’s 2022 operating budget on Tuesday after making more than a dozen changes to Mayor Dave Bronson’s proposed $550 million spending plan.
The budget passed unanimously after a lengthy amendment process, although some changes drew considerable debate and resulted in several clashes with the administration. The mayor had proposed cutting a total of $7.4 million from the city’s total operating budget in 2022 compared to the city’s 2021 spending plan.
The Assembly’s changes to the budget include restoring the Mobile Crisis Team, funding for the School Resource Officer program in the school district, funding grants for prevention of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence and funding for early childhood education, among other changes.
Assembly members Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar, co-chairs of the Budget and Finance Committee, said in a written statement that they proposed several of the amendments to fund “critical public safety items” that the mayor had cut.
“We have a budget that cuts a lot of public safety and adds middle management positions,” Quinn-Davidson said of Bronson’s proposal.
At the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Bronson argued that he had actually proposed more than $650,000 in increases to public safety, though the Anchorage Fire Department took a “slight cut,” he said.
“The Anchorage Assembly has accused me of cutting public safety in a press release today. This is completely and demonstrably false,” Bronson said.
Many of the changes the Assembly made Tuesday focused on restoring money to programs currently funded by the city’s new alcohol tax — programs to which Bronson had proposed some cuts and changes, including devoting a larger portion of the funds to homelessness. Groups that pushed for the alcohol tax, which took effect in February, criticized the changes and said they would improperly and disproportionately spend the funds, going against what voters intended when they approved the tax last year.
The Assembly kept the city’s new Mobile Crisis Team fully funded while also keeping it in the fire department. Bronson had proposed cutting its funding by more than half and moving the funding to the police department, saying the police already had a similar program.
The Mobile Crisis Team 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.
“The voters want to see the Mobile Crisis Team restored. They want to see us invest in mental health first response, and we know that keeping that in the fire department and taking it out of police, frees up the police to do police work,” Quinn Davidson said in an interview.
The Assembly’s amendments included allocating more than $1.2 million in funding for school resource officers in the Anchorage School District through the end of the school year. The administration had proposed that the school district reimburse the city for 75% of the program’s cost in 2022, rather than the city paying for the program entirely.
By funding the program through the end of the school year, Dunbar said, it gives the city a chance to have a broader conversation about the program and how to fund it.
A letter from School Board President Margo Bellamy sent Tuesday urged the Assembly to fund the program.
The Assembly also voted to retain some city positions that Bronson had cut, such as safety inspectors in the Building Services Department.
In doing so, it eliminated the position of real estate director to help pay for those positions. The Real Estate Department will be overseen by Adam Trombley, director of community development.
The Assembly funded many of its changes to the budget through increased estimates of revenue from the city’s alcohol tax and room tax, which the Bronson administration had underestimated, Quinn-Davidson and Dunbar said.
The Assembly in its amendments estimated an increase in $2.5 million more revenue from the room tax in 2022, and $500,000 more from the alcohol tax than Bronson’s estimates.
Quinn-Davidson and Dunbar had also proposed cutting some of the administration’s management and appointed positions to help pay for the budget changes, but compromised with the administration to keep the positions during the amendment process.
Still, the proposal to cut the positions evoked heated comments from members of the administration.
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski said that a proposal to remove a special assistant position from the mayor’s office was “clearly an attack on the executive branch’s ability to operate.”
That position is senior policy adviser of real estate, held by Jim Winegarner, who the Assembly rejected to confirm as real estate director over concerns with his qualifications.
“There has been a long-standing tradition that the Assembly doesn’t cut the mayor’s office staff and the mayor’s office generally doesn’t veto the appropriations for their budget and their staff,” Demboski said.
Dunbar said that in response to the Assembly’s rejection of Winegarner, the mayor created the special assistant position. He also said that while the number of positions in the mayor’s office has stayed about the same as previous positions, they have seen an “unprecedented wave” of special assistants and political appointees in the administration like Winegarner who then work in city departments.
“We don’t see Mr. Winegarner, for example, as part of the mayor’s office. He is serving in a real estate function,” Dunbar said.
In response, Demboski said it is “categorically false” that Winegarner is running the real estate department from his position in the mayor’s office. He consults, advises and works on special projects, including partnering with the Anchorage Community Development Authority, she said.
“He is in no way shape or form at any time directing any of the day-to-day operations for the staff of real estate,” she said.
The Assembly also considered eliminating the director of building services position, currently held by Ron Thompson, but it approved an amendment from Assembly member John Weddleton that preserved the director position.
Despite the various disagreements, the Assembly approved the budget a few minutes before midnight, and several Assembly members and people in the audience broke into applause.
Since the mayor took office in July, the Assembly and Bronson administration have been at odds over several issues and have engaged in a growing power struggle. Last week, the Assembly voted to override two of Bronson’s vetoes of ordinances that Assembly leadership has said are meant to address separation of powers issues with the mayor but that Bronson has called a “power grab.”
Bronson, who is against government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions, has vehemently disagreed with the Assembly over its citywide emergency mask ordinance, and the two have scuffled over some of his executive appointments.
While the Assembly has approved the majority of Bronson’s appointees, it has rejected two over concerns about their qualifications, including Winegarner and Bronson’s library director appointee, Sami Graham, who Bronson then immediately named his chief of staff.