Port of Anchorage main focus of Berkowitz's legislative program

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz said Thursday he has one main request of the state Legislature this session – adding $290 million for the city's unfinished Port of Anchorage modernization project to a statewide bond package.

In a presentation to a bipartisan group of legislators from the Anchorage area, Berkowitz said that in the state's fiscal climate, he's making the port the city's sole priority in the upcoming legislative session in Juneau. The total cost for improvements has been estimated at more than a half-billion dollars.

The port was also a top priority of former Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration. Efforts to revamp the aging hub have been underway since 2003, but the expansion has been troubled, with two lawsuits over the design, construction and management of the project. Berkowitz and other city officials say the state has a big interest in the port — about 85 percent of Alaskans are served by products that come through it.

"(The port) is inadequate given the needs the state has, and inadequate given that we're a resource development state," Berkowitz said.

Last year, the Sullivan administration and the Anchorage Assembly made a $330 million capital request to the state for the port project, but the money didn't come through.

Now Berkowitz is seeking to align with the administration of Gov. Bill Walker on plans for a $500 million, two-year general obligation bond package to replace most of the state's capital budget paid from cash. The Walker administration's proposed capital budget for 2016 is $195 million -- but with the state's budget decimated by declining oil taxes and royalties, the administration is looking to borrow money from the bond market. The bond package, which has not yet been introduced, would be on the November ballot.

Berkowitz said Wednesday he's asking for the port project to be added to the November bond package.


Rep. Matt Claman, D-Anchorage, asked Berkowitz whether the port funding would be in addition to the governor's bond package, or included in it.

Berkowitz said he hadn't yet spoken directly to the governor about the topic, but he said the state shouldn't be "hamstrung" by cash flow problems.

"I think that as Alaska makes the case to the rest of the country that we're willing to invest in ourselves, it makes others want to invest in us," Berkowitz said.

Berkowitz has a tough sell ahead of him. Rep. Steve Thompson, R-Fairbanks, co-chair of the House Finance Committee, said in a phone interview he thinks the Legislature will be looking to reduce the state's bonded indebtedness.

The port request "is going to have a tough time getting through the Legislature," Thompson said.

With the exception of adding the port to the statewide bond package, Berkowitz said he isn't planning to ask the state for money in 2016 for capital projects. Instead, he's asking the Anchorage Assembly to consider its own $47.9 million bond package for the April ballot, which is larger than in previous years. The Assembly is set to hold a public hearing on the bond proposals at its upcoming Tuesday meeting.

Berkowitz said he wants to shift away from putting the responsibility for paying for local projects on the state.

Apart from the port project, the other requests the mayor and his staff discussed with legislators were related to what they characterized as "unhelpful" state restrictions on local government. Chris Schutte, director of the mayor's Office of Economic and Community Development, said the administration wants to see legislation to make it easier for local jurisdictions to use tax incentives for development.

The city attorney, Bill Falsey, said he hoped legislators would remove a property tax exemption to encourage sprinkler systems in buildings. City building code already requires new buildings to have sprinklers, which means the exemption is rewarding required behavior, Falsey said.

Berkowitz also said he wants the state to allow Anchorage to administer a program that provides emergency financial assistance to victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The proposed legislative requests will need approval from the Assembly, and the administration's program is set to be introduced at Tuesday's meeting.

Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that 85 percent of Alaska's consumer imports come through the port.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.