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Berkowitz transition report casts wide net over Anchorage issues

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  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published July 27, 2015

Future technology costs, low city employee morale and a recommendation for a civil rights law to add protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people were among the issues and suggestions in a report compiled by Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz's transition team.

The transition report, issued Monday, will serve as a signpost for the new administration. It makes recommendations in the areas of public safety, homelessness, administration, jobs and economy, and quality of life, signaled by the phrase "Live. Work. Play."

At 31 pages, the report is far less detailed than the nearly 350-page document produced in 2009 by former Mayor Dan Sullivan's transition team, which included direct reports from individual city departments and a preliminary budget analysis. In an interview Monday, Berkowitz said he wanted his team's report to be "forward-looking" rather than an in-depth assessment of problems in the city.

The team's five subcommittees met over about three weeks. In a noon presentation at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce's "Make It Monday" forum, transition committee co-chair Andrew Halcro returned to the organization he once led and ticked through what he said were the report's main takeaways -- looming state budget challenges, future cost obligations for the SAP business software project and employee retirement costs, the limited local tax base and the city's struggles with housing and homelessness.

Though the SAP project was not a specific focus in the report, Halcro told the chamber audience he was seriously concerned about its cost, which consultants have said could cost as much as $73 million, including city labor. Halcro characterized the project as so far having been paid solely on credit, and said the debt will be spread across city departments once the project is launched or scrapped.

"The next administration is inheriting this $60 million bill," Halcro told the audience. He called it the "biggest surprise" of the transition report and said the debt could impact the administration's ability to increase police staffing or invest in other technology.

The Berkowitz administration wasn't immediately able to provide further financial information about SAP payments. In a text message, former Mayor Dan Sullivan called Halcro's characterization "incorrect" and said it reflected a misunderstanding of city finances.

"No different than bonds issued for capital projects. I don't know of any city that would use general fund operating dollars for a project of this nature," Sullivan wrote. "Additionally, we have used some of the budget surplus dollars we achieved during my tenure and state grant monies on the project as well."

In his presentation, Halcro also highlighted a recommendation from the transition committee to adopt a non-discrimination law, a contentious issue during the mayoral campaign. Berkowitz has said he supports such a law.

In 2009, Sullivan vetoed a measure that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. In 2012, Anchorage voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 5, which would have added legal protections for gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Asked by an audience member at the Monday luncheon about his strategy for pursuing such a law, Berkowitz he would seek "some measure" of political consensus from the community and Anchorage Assembly before proceeding. But he didn't elaborate further.

"I'm not showing all my cards at once," Berkowitz said.

In an interview later, Berkowitz would only say he was working with the Assembly. On Monday, Assembly chair Dick Traini confirmed that the two had had a "preliminary discussion" on the topic.

In his speech to the chamber audience, Berkowitz didn't directly bring up a non-discrimination law, focusing instead on fiscal independence from the state. He also said the city has a "moral obligation" to address homelessness, noting that several people have been found dead outdoors in Anchorage in recent weeks.

He said his administration has already made some progress on homelessness. Last week, his administration announced that it plans to spend $200,000 in city money for 56 new housing units near Merrill Field for people who are alcoholic, homeless or mentally ill.

Berkowitz also hinted at the start of an expanded program to encourage businesses to clean up storefronts in advance of major events like the upcoming gathering of foreign ministers for the August "GLACIER" conference that might also bring President Barack Obama to the city. In the interview, Berkowitz didn't have many details but said city money isn't involved, and it's based on a program run by the Anchorage Downtown Partnership.

Here's a sampling of other recommendations and goals contained in the report:

Within six months, "(the Department of Health and Human Services) should coordinate with municipal grant writers to initiate and fund a treatment program for opiate/heroin addicts using non-addictive Vivitrol."

Provide (within 60 days) "free and reduced bus passes" for the homeless and youths. Halcro said the transition team found that homeless people have difficulty getting to appointments for housing vouchers.

Over Berkowitz's three-year term, build 1,000 new units of housing.

Develop an "all-encompassing IT Strategic plan" for all city departments and dedicate leftover money from other projects to SAP.

Within six months, "sign non-discrimination ordinance into law."

The final section of the report also sums up concerns heard at four community town halls, such as support for a South Anchorage library or a desire for better public notice in Chugiak-Eagle River.

Halcro said the transition committee plans to discuss the report with community organizations in the coming weeks. A link to the transition report can be found on the mayor's office homepage at muni.org.

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