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Stepping into the void of leadership

  • Author: Anchorage Daily News editorial board
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 27, 2019
  • Published July 27, 2019

Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz declared a civil emergency on July 24, 2019, in response to the deep cuts Gov. Mike Dunleavy has made to state operating budget. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The Municipality of Anchorage’s declaration of emergency Wednesday resonated across Southcentral Alaska, with good reason. The most recent previous emergency declaration for the city came after the Nov. 30 earthquake in 2018, and the situation our state finds itself in now is just as serious, if not more so. As in November, a seismic event — this time, a man-made political one in the form of an unresolved budget stalemate — has shaken our community deeply. And as in November, even if legislators can reach a solution in short order, aftershocks will resonate across the state in the weeks and months to come.

By vetoing state funding for a variety of services, in particular funds related to behavioral health and services for homeless Alaskans, Gov. Mike Dunleavy has created a situation in which hundreds of people will be on Anchorage’s streets without stable places to live. Reducing spending is an imperative with Alaska experiencing a significant revenue deficit. But the governor has done so with an ax rather than a scalpel, and without an articulated vision that would help the state avoid putting hundreds of its most vulnerable residents on the street with winter approaching.

And with no guarantee that the Legislature will be able to restore homeless funding this year, the municipality is right to step forward in dealing with the issue. The state, intentionally or not, has abdicated its leadership role on homeless services, and without a plan to deal with the resulting vacuum, Alaskans will suffer.

It’s not just an Anchorage issue, though Anchorage is the place where issues of homelessness are most visible and concentrated. In Fairbanks, a loss of state funding will force the closure of The Door, the Interior’s only shelter for homeless teenagers. Shelters in other communities also face reductions in service or outright closure, depending on their mix of funding and ability to scale back from current offerings.

And in Alaska, a failure to provide for those in need of shelter can have dire consequences, particularly in winter. The potential for death from exposure and hypothermia is obvious, but lesser situations can also put great social and economic stress on our community and its residents. More people outside during the winter means more people for police, community service patrols and mobile intervention teams to track and try to ensure their safety and that of others. It means more frostbite cases being treated at local emergency rooms, requiring expensive and often chronic care that drives up medical costs for all Alaskans. It means homeless Alaskans with mental health issues will have greater difficulty accessing care, which will make them more likely to put themselves or others in harm’s way. Crucially, it will stymy progress at reducing the social and economic costs of homelessness. Those without stable living situations have incredible difficulty getting and holding jobs, providing for themselves or others, or dealing with substance abuse issues.

Because services to combat homelessness are being cut so quickly, leaving providers with almost no time to react, Alaska will see broad negative effects that will touch nearly all of us. Thus the municipality’s step forward to discuss ways to help increase shelter capacity is not only prudent, but also necessary.

Those inclined toward political gamesmanship may caution the municipality that moving forward with its own plan to maintain homeless services is giving Gov. Dunleavy what he wants — a transfer of state fiscal responsibility to local government. But the primary concern should be for the welfare of our community members, not politics. And as for political “wins,” the abruptness of the funding reductions can only count as a loss for all involved at that level of government. By taking the reins, the municipality is proving that it is the more functional government now, and appears to be the only one willing or able to provide a more gentle landing, allowing our vulnerable and their service providers time to adjust to lower state funding levels.

The rub for Anchorage residents, of course, is that services have a cost, and unlike the state, the municipality does have an adjustable mechanism by which to provide for those services — property taxes. On a short-term, emergency basis, the municipality can and should draw on available money, in the form of funds already designated toward homeless services more generally, to provide immediate relief without longstanding impacts to residents’ tax burden. Should additional money become necessary, the municipality can draw on fund balances after consultation with the Assembly and the public — and, if drawing on the city’s $163 million trust fund should be necessary, a vote of the people. Other municipalities prudent enough to have socked away savings to carry them through a crisis can do the same to help stave off the worst impacts of the funding loss.

But in the absence of a solution out of Juneau, the long-term conversation must happen too. The coming days, weeks and months will no doubt see a difficult and necessary discussion about what services Municipality of Anchorage residents can and should provide in the absence of state support. The more residents share their priorities with policymakers, the better the municipality’s plan will reflect the will of the community.

That’s how government is supposed to work — providing shared services that are informed by local needs and wants. The state is showing us the consequences of what happens when that system breaks.