Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson on Tuesday issued vetoes for 18 additions and changes that Assembly members made to next year’s city budget.
Bronson’s vetoes cut about $7.8 million of the Assembly’s budget changes.
However, most of the Assembly changes were passed with a supermajority of eight or more votes — the number needed to override mayoral vetoes.
In the veto document, Bronson said he had proposed a budget that was $12 million under the tax cap, which would take a “significant burden off Anchorage taxpayers.” The mayor said he agrees with some of the Assembly’s amendments but that most “represent projects that do not enhance public safety or food security for Anchorage residents.”
“With the inflation facing us every day at the supermarket and the gas station, now is not the time to begin social experiments,” he said.
Assembly leaders pushed back in a statement Wednesday, saying that Bronson’s vetoes include $4 million in cuts to public safety and housing initiatives.
Two vetoes by Bronson cut mental health first responder programs from both the fire and police department budgets.
Since its formation in 2021, the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team has so far largely been funded by the city’s alcohol tax revenue. Similarly, the police department’s Mobile Intervention Team has been partially funded via the alcohol tax.
Before finalizing next year’s budget, Assembly members voted to move funding for both teams from the alcohol tax budget into each department’s respective budget to formalize the programs as a mainstay of city services.
If Bronson’s cuts go through, the Mobile Crisis Team would be defunded and the police department’s Mobile Intervention Team would be “drastically reduced,” Assembly Vice Chair Meg Zaletel said.
“These well-loved programs save money over time by diverting fire and police resources and are one of the Municipality’s best tools for reducing mental and behavioral health crises,” said Zaletel, who is co-chair of the Budget and Finance Committee.
In response to the criticisms, Bronson held a news conference Wednesday afternoon and said he’s not cutting the programs with his vetoes. He is only reverting the Assembly’s changes in funding sources back to the alcohol tax budget, which is outside of the city’s tax cap, he said.
“I compromised with the Assembly by supporting nearly half of their amendments. But now they’re making statements that are factually incorrect. So let’s set the record straight. Public safety remains fully funded,” Bronson said.
But Assembly leaders said Bronson is wrong. The mayor only has the power to veto — to remove budget items, Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said.
During the amendment process, the Assembly reallocated to other programs about $3 million in alcohol tax money that was freed up when members moved the mental health crisis response programs into the general city budget, Zaletel said.
And Bronson didn’t veto those, she said. That means alcohol tax funding for the teams doesn’t exist.
“There is no space to just put them back into the alcohol tax. So they are essentially gone,” Zaletel said.
Bronson also said that under the Assembly’s amendments, the teams would be paid for under the city’s tax cap by property taxes, which he does not support.
But the $2.4 million for the fire department’s Mobile Crisis Team wouldn’t come from property taxes in 2024, Zaletel said.
When the Assembly shifted it to the general budget, members specified that it would be funded via a surplus in this year’s revenues from a state and federal program supplementing Medicaid payments.
Core services and staff vacancies
During last week’s meeting, several members argued that the best course is to avoid cuts to core city services, because the city and its residents end up paying for those in other ways, they said.
“We will keep focusing upstream on prevention, routine maintenance and retaining our great workforce as the best way to manage our public dollars,” Assembly member Anna Brawley, co-chair of the Budget and Finance Committee, said last week.
Several Assembly members have also voiced concern over ongoing high rates of staff vacancies in multiple city departments. They had reversed a $2.64 million one-time cut proposed by Bronson that would have defunded currently vacant staff positions in several departments — a change Bronson included in his vetoes.
“Many of these vacancies have gone unfilled for years. Finding the right financial size for a department, and the best way to pay a just wage for municipal employees is a decision that should be made by the executive branch,” the mayor said in the veto.
In Wednesday’s statement, Constant disagreed, referring to the city’s recent struggles with plowing and snow removal.
“Mayor Bronson’s vetoes cut positions across ten departments and we cannot afford to continue to underfund the basics if we want to see our roads plowed and our citizens kept safe,” Constant said.
Assembly members also criticized Bronson for his cuts to their housing initiatives, including striking $500,000 members had directed to the Real Estate Department to start a housing fund. The fund would aim to bolster affordable housing by providing funds to developers through a competitive bid process, the amendment’s sponsors said.
“It’s disappointing to see Mayor Bronson try to derail this effort and hamstring the city’s work to solve the housing shortage crisis,” Brawley said in the Wednesday statement.
At the news conference, Bronson said increased affordable housing is a top priority for his administration, but that the Assembly didn’t “provide a concrete spending plan for these funds.”
“Half a million dollars is a lot of money, especially when it’s the taxpayer’s dollars being spent,” he said.
The Assembly will hold veto override votes at a meeting in the coming weeks, Zaletel said.