A few hours after the earthquake hit last November, a Lower 48 reporter asked me, “So, what’s going on with rioting in Anchorage?”
A lot happened that day. Dispatchers took 911 calls while aftershocks forced them under their desks. Retirees showed up to work. Within hours, municipal, state, utility and private sector crews secured critical infrastructure and reestablished electricity and heat across the city. Neighbors checked on each other.
Riots? That didn’t even cross our minds. I told the reporter, “We’re Alaskans. We got this.”
In a year marked by natural and human-created disasters, Anchorage has been an island of stability in a sea of turmoil. At a time when Washington, D.C., is badly divided, and the state acts like it is broke and broken, local government is the one functional level of government able to address and solve problems.
Through reduced oil revenues and drastic state budget cuts and vetoes, the Municipality has maintained a balanced budget and a AAA credit rating. We’ve turned the corner on crime, we’re seeing increased development citywide and we are making prudent fiscal decisions.
Our stability was not inevitable. In the 1980s, state funding accounted for more than 40% of Anchorage’s general operating budget. Today it’s about 1%. Between 2005 and 2015, Anchorage received an average of $85 million per year from the state for capital projects. Since 2016, it has averaged $4.5 million per year, a decrease of 93.5%. And even though costs have been pushed to Anchorage taxpayers, per-capita bond indebtedness today is $186 per person, compared to $428 per person in the 1980s.
It took fiscal discipline to get us to stability. Almost every non-safety related department budget has taken direct cuts and absorbed the costs of inflation. We reduced our reliance on property taxes: Property taxpayers benefit dollar-for-dollar from the fuel tax, and there are increased exemptions for residences. The agreement to sell Municipal Light and Power will downsize local government and improve the quality and cost of electricity for ratepayers. It will also be a significant step towards municipal financial self-sufficiency.
With our fiscal house in order, we can do even more to make Anchorage safer, more secure, and stronger.
Our police department has added 100 officers since 2015 — and more than half of the force’s 430 officers have come on duty since that year as well. A larger force allows us to target problems like vehicle theft and embed patrols within communities. It’s working. Vehicle theft is down 45%. Burglaries are down 10%. We have much more work to do, which is why our 2020 budget continues to invest in public safety.
After state budget vetoes precipitated a humanitarian crisis, the Municipality made the investments to keep homeless shelters open and vulnerable residents in their homes. And, following significant collaboration and commitment from the Municipality and nonprofit groups to address homelessness, Providence Health and Services Alaska, Premera Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alaska, Weidner Apartment Homes and the Rasmuson Foundation pledged $40 million over five years to reduce homelessness in our community, the largest investment of its kind in Alaska history.
Businesses are investing in Anchorage. We passed incentives to construct housing downtown, which has seen virtually no housing development in years. Now several downtown housing projects are under construction or in the queue. Citywide, we are issuing building permits at 113% of last year’s rate. It has been a banner year for tourism, which grew by 20% percent from 2018.
The deteriorated infrastructure at the Port of Alaska remains a threat to the entire state, but we have begun construction of the petroleum cement terminal and have momentum to put the entire project on a trajectory towards completion.
At the same time, the changing climate is causing more fires, more ice and, if unaddressed, more costs. In Anchorage’s Climate Action Plan, we recognize the problems and opportunities that accompany efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to them. For example, we installed the largest rooftop solar array in the state, which will earn savings at a better rate of return than a Permanent Fund investment.
When we do things together, we are able to focus on what we can achieve, and what we can do, not what we can’t. Alaska is a spectacular place, we are resilient people, and Anchorage is in good shape and poised for better. This is a time to have faith in who and where we are and be confident enough to take the smart risks that honor our legacy and uphold our values and commitments.
We’re Alaskans. We got this.
Ethan Berkowitz, most recently elected in 2018, is the mayor of Anchorage.
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