Let’s make sure the alcohol tax makes a real difference

In April, Anchorage residents finally approved a municipal tax on alcoholic beverages. My wife and I will now pay more for our daily glass or two of wine, but we supported the tax and are pleased that a majority of other voters did as well.

Alcohol is not a necessity, and we can each control how the tax impacts us by choosing how much alcohol we consume. The effect will be unnoticeable to most of us. But the revenue could do much to prevent, reduce or even eliminate some of our community’s most pernicious problems associated with the pervasive misuse of alcohol.

Proponents of the alcohol tax helped overcome citizen skepticism by narrowing the areas in which tax revenue is spent to those with some plausible relationship to the problems that result from alcohol misuse. But the potential uses are still very broad, and a slightly narrowed range does not assure the money will be spent well or on things that matter to residents.

The proposition did require an annual report of expenses “itemized by each authorized use or purpose” to be made public. But this marginal level of accountability could amount to no more than a brief spreadsheet. It requires no report of what was done or the results. The public just gets to know how the money was spent. This is hardly enough to overcome the lack of transparency and accountability that plagues local government and fuels citizen skepticism of the value they receive from local taxes.

Alcohol tax revenue is scheduled to begin in February 2021. The Assembly and mayor have already begun planning to spend it. We need to ensure the tax makes the difference it should for our community.

A May 11 press release by Assembly Chair Felix Rivera outlined the process the Assembly will use to spend alcohol tax revenue. It consists of a series of committee meetings in May, June and July discussing various programs, grants, ideas and proposals for spending alcohol tax revenue, as well as municipal department “needs” related to allowable expenditure categories. These will be followed by a July 24 work session to develop a draft spending plan. The draft plan will be presented to the public at three “town halls” in August. A work session will be held Aug. 28 to make final revisions to the spending plan before two public hearings on a resolution adopting the final plan are held in September.

As the initial step in that process, the Assembly held its first work session concerning use of the revenue on May 15. The session consisted of presentations from the municipal chiefs of police and fire departments and the health director proposing specific expenditures of alcohol tax revenue. All agreed this was merely the start of a conversation.

But, as the start of a conversation that would serve our community and satisfy citizens, it was a failure. The work session and the outlined process indicate the Assembly and mayor are headed down a well-trodden but misguided path. They are focused on the specifics of how they will spend alcohol tax revenue, not on what will be achieved. At no point in the outline of the Assembly process are results even mentioned. During the work session, there was virtually no discussion of desired community outcomes. The discussion centered on discrete spending proposals and activities to be supported.

The planned process, embodied in the work session, puts the spending cart before the results horse. No steps are devoted to defining what problems citizens feel are priorities or what results they want from tax expenditures. Community input is relegated to feedback on the draft and final spending plans, letting residents nibble around the edges at best. The process entirely ignores discussion of accountability mechanisms, which has been the most troublesome failure of local government and fuels much citizen frustration and opposition to tax increases.

The failings were typified by the first presentation in the work session by police chief Justin Doll. Like countless traditional bureaucrats before him, Chief Doll proposed a wish list of expenditures focused on largely unmeasurable organizational objectives, not results for the community. His objectives:

• “Rapidly add to the department’s capacity to effect change on quality-of-life issues in the community.”

• “Complete non-sworn support of critical department operations.”

He did not define what “change on quality-of-life issues” would be achieved by giving his department 10 new sworn officers and 12 non-sworn staff, along with a half-million dollar cell phone program, at a total cost of nearly $2.8 million annually. He did mention broad categories of activity for new officers promising greater activity, not results, in these areas.

It is results, not activity, that prompted citizens to approve the alcohol tax. Our elected leaders must assure that alcohol tax revenues are directed toward results citizens want for our community. They can’t just be frittered away on a scattershot of well-intended projects that fall within the broad spending categories or meet the organizational goals of municipal agencies with no accountability for outcomes.

Anchorage residents have seen that approach to the point of disgust. The mayor’s effort to “end homelessness” and the complete lack of transparency and accountability in dealing with the illegal camps has shown us how ineffective that is. Despite spending more each year, the community sees no appreciable change — homeless counts have not declined and illegal camping and its impacts continue to increase. We don’t measure meaningful results. Instead, citizens are only allowed to know how many camps have been moved and the tons of garbage removed from public lands each summer in an absurd cycle that changes nothing.

Before spending alcohol tax revenue, the Assembly must seek real and systematic citizen input defining desired community outcomes. Then, it must develop an overarching policy strategy focused on achieving those results in priority order. This must occur before specific plans for spending money on proven and promising approaches are developed. Planning to spend is easy. Planning to accomplish something and then doing so takes responsibility and work.

Transparency and accountability in each step of identifying community-desired outcomes, planning for use of alcohol tax revenues, implementation and regular performance reviews will be essential. The Assembly must establish robust systems and methods by which entities receiving and expending alcohol tax revenue are held accountable for performance and results. And it must use them.

Any project or individual expenditure proposed or funded must have demonstrated specifically how it will contribute to achieving community-desired outcomes, how its impact and performance will be measured and reported back to the public quarterly, and the projected performance targets to be achieved through the life of the endeavor. The Assembly must be dispassionate in judging performance and stop funding those projects or expenditures that don’t produce results.

If we don’t all do our work, the alcohol tax won’t matter.

Russ Webb is a former deputy commissioner of Health and Social Services and a former chair of the Alaska Mental Health Trust board of trustees.

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