The Anchorage Assembly voted to override most of Mayor Dave Bronson’s vetoes to their changes in the 2022 city budget, again reinstating funding for cuts the mayor had made to multiple city programs.
The Assembly addressed Bronson’s vetoes during a special meeting Friday during which both sides laid out clashing legal arguments over the budget process that resulted in moments of tension, culminating in the city manager accusing the Assembly’s vice chair of lying at the end of the meeting.
The Assembly had unanimously approved the city’s roughly $550 million 2022 operating budget last month after making multiple changes, eliminating most of Bronson’s budget cuts. Bronson later vetoed most of the Assembly’s changes, calling for the Assembly to rein in spending. He had initially proposed decreasing next year’s city budget by $7.4 million from the city’s 2021 spending plan.
On Friday, the Assembly in a 9-2 vote reversed all but one of Bronson’s vetoes to the operating budget, restoring funding to programs including the Mobile Crisis Team; the School Resource Officer program; grants for prevention of child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence; and early childhood education, among others.
Assembly members Jamie Allard and Crystal Kennedy voted against overriding Bronson’s vetoes.
“I fundamentally disagree with this decision,” Bronson said in a statement sent immediately after the vote, adding that the Assembly increased the budget by nearly $2 million, pushing spending to the city’s tax cap.
“We must reign in spending and put taxpayers first,” he said. “I will continue fighting to make government more efficient, responsible, and accountable to the people of Anchorage. We simply cannot spend more than we have.”
Several Assembly members have said that the Bronson administration underestimated city tax revenue sources, including the bed tax and alcohol tax, and they used increased revenue for the tax estimates to justify many of their budget changes.
Bronson administration officials have argued that the Assembly is too optimistic in its estimates of tax revenue.
Bronson and the Assembly have engaged in a budget tug-of-war largely focused on how money from the city’s new alcohol tax will be spent. The tax funds 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 result in the city improperly and disproportionately spending the funds, going against what voters intended when they approved the tax last year.
“Today we funded school resource officers, building safety inspectors, the fire department mobile crisis team, domestic violence prevention and pre-K education,” Assembly member and budget committee co-chair Austin Quinn-Davidson said in a statement sent after the vote. “We also added critical infrastructure projects to the Parks bond. Our community came out strong in support of these popular and successful programs and the Assembly listened.”
At Friday’s special meeting, the Assembly and administration engaged in a new debate focused on the city’s tax revenue projections and the question of whether the Assembly has the power to increase the city’s budget without the mayor’s chief financial officer first certifying the existence of the funds or tax revenue estimates.
In a memo sent to the Assembly just before the meeting, municipal attorneys asserted that the chief financial officer has sole purview and discretion over fund certification, including projections of revenue.
“Assembly appropriations without fund certification are void and lack the force of law,” the memo states.
“The issue we’re encountering here is that there have been funding sources that the CFO — finance department through the CFO — cannot verify exist,” said Ben Bowman, an attorney with the city.
That means that, according to the attorneys’ argument, if the Assembly makes changes exceeding the established pool of money by the chief financial officer, the budget could be deemed illegal.
Several Assembly members and their legal adviser, Bill Falsey, vehemently disagreed and argued that a budget process like that would put far too much power in the hands of the chief financial officer — and ultimately the mayor — undermining the Assembly’s legislative power to direct the spending of city money.
Quinn-Davidson called the attorneys’ arguments “absurd.”
“What you are proposing gives more power to the CFO than anyone else elected by constituents,” she said.
Assembly member Pete Petersen said that it is his eighth time working on a budget and that issues with fund certifications have never previously been brought up.
Each year the budget is pieced together using projected anticipated revenues, and sometimes those projections fall short, are right on or underestimate revenue.
“We’re throwing darts every year,” Petersen said.
Shortfalls and overestimates are usually addressed in the spring during first-quarter budget revisions.
Falsey, who worked previously as municipal attorney and under the two preceding administrations as municipal manager, argued that the city’s charter clearly delineates that the Assembly has the final authority on the budget.
“What I hear you saying is that the administration — any administration — they get to decide what the pool of money is,” Assembly member Kameron Perez-Verdia said. “... If they decide to have $1, then that negates the Assembly’s ability to pass a budget, because anything we pass over $1 is not legal. This seems ludicrous to me.”
Several Assembly members implied that the attorneys’ argument would politicize the budget process because the chief financial officer — and many lower-level positions in the Office of Management and Budget and finance department — serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
“I’ll tell you that the entire OMB and many of those in the finance department helped,” municipal attorney Patrick Bergt said. “And I can assure you that impugning the motive of those workers — it just feels wrong to me … and I can assure the Assembly that we were not working at the direction of anyone in the administration.”
Constant said many of the people working in the finance department and others are all subject to termination without notice and with little cause.
“I did not impugn the motives of the hardworking people of those departments. I just asked, how can we be basing our projections on math that is not based on what I would say is reality?” Constant said.
During his closing comments, Constant also said that he has heard from many city workers who fear for their jobs or are leaving their jobs under the administration out of fear of termination.
Municipal Manager Amy Demboski walked to the center of the conference room after the meeting adjourned and pointed her finger at Constant: “That’s bullshit,” she said to him.
The Bronson administration and the Assembly have engaged in an escalating and sometimes ugly power struggle since the mayor took office. On Friday, in the newest iteration, the mayor announced by email just as the meeting began that he is suing the Assembly over his right to fire a city official without involvement from the body.
They’ve also sparred over a few of Bronson’s executive appointees, with the Assembly rejecting two, and argued about who has authority in the Assembly’s meeting spaces. An email from an Anchorage city employee that recently surfaced describes Demboski attempting to cut off the livestream of a tense Assembly meeting over a proposed mask mandate.
The administration has also seen a string of recent firings and resignations of city officials, including the city’s police chief.