During the first large mayoral forum ahead of the April 3 Anchorage municipal election, Rebecca Logan, the most prominent opponent to incumbent Ethan Berkowitz, challenged the mayor on crime, taxes, the size of the city's budget and the proposed sale of Municipal Light & Power.
Berkowitz defended his record, saying he'd hired more than 100 new cops in three years while finding creative ways to lower property taxes and save the city money.
With just about two weeks remaining before mail-in voting starts in the city election, the lunchtime forum hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce was a way for the frontrunners in the mayoral race to show how they differ on the main policy issues facing the city. More than 100 people came to see the candidates, at the Dena'ina Center.
In addition to Berkowitz and Logan, candidates Dustin Darden, Timothy Huit, Matthew Mendonsa, Nelson Godoy and Ron Stafford participated. The moderator was Julie Hasquet, communications director for Chugach Electric Association and a board member of the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce.
Berkowitz, seeking a second term as mayor, and Logan, the general manager of an oil, gas and mining industry association, had diverging opinions on most questions, especially when it came to taxes.
But there were some points of agreement. Both Logan and Berkowitz spoke critically about Senate Bill 91 — Alaska's sweeping and contentious criminal justice reform law that, among other big changes, aimed to reserve expensive prison beds mainly for the most violent offenders. Logan said city officials should be in Juneau advocating for ways to change the laws and make it easier to put repeat offenders of all kinds in jail; Berkowitz said the law had reduced discretion for police, prosecutors and judges to make decisions.
Hasquet, the moderator, asked whether enough was being done to combat what appeared to be a rise in crime in recent years.
Berkowitz said that when he took office, the city had 320 sworn officers, compared to 436 officers today.
But he also said said there was no simple solution to crime. The city is dealing with an opioid epidemic and a resurgence in the popularity of methamphetamine, Berkowitz said. He said more treatment facilities have to be built so drug addicts can have a chance to detox and break cycles of criminal activity.
"Until we look at this comprehensively and take on all the social responsibilities, it's going to fester," he said.
Logan said people she had talked to did not feel more cops had made a significant difference in the amount of crime.
"This is an area where we want to be careful we don't confuse activity with results," Logan said.
She said police should be spending more time on "community policing," a recommendation in a 2010 report by the Police Executive Research Forum. The model allows police to spend a portion of their shifts in neighborhoods talking to residents, in addition to responding to calls.
While the two candidates varied in their opinions on crime, perhaps the most obvious differences between Berkowitz and Logan came on the topic of taxes.
While discussing his efforts to cut property taxes, Berkowitz pointed to his proposal for a 10-cent motor fuel tax. The tax is set to take effect Thursday. His administration has predicted it will bring in about $14 million.
The money will give the city a more diverse revenue stream to help fend off state cutbacks, Berkowitz said.
Logan, meanwhile, said she did not support the fuel tax. She said it would overly burden middle class residents and small businesses.
She also said she did not support another Berkowitz's proposal to give a higher tax break to homeowners. That proposal will appear as a proposition on the April ballot. Logan said businesses would be unfairly burdened.
Berkowitz acknowledged that taxes would rise on commercial property owners to make up for the break for homeowners. But he disagreed with Logan on the impact, saying taxes would rise only slightly. The gas tax and increased deductions for the federal government would help offset what businesses will have to pay, Berkowitz said.
Logan also criticized the size of the city's budget, saying it had grown far too much during Berkowitz's tenure. More conservative critics of Berkowitz have pointed out that the city budget was $483 million in 2015, compared to this year's budget of $521 million.
Berkowitz and his deputies have said the budget's size is affected in large part by factors beyond their control, like state cuts, fixed costs like labor and health care, legal settlements and changes in the economy.
Berkowitz said his administration had passed three years of balanced budgets while maintaining the city's Triple-A bond rating.
"The only increase in the budget in my time has been to public safety," Berkowitz said.
When it came to a question about the city asking for permission to sell Municipal Light & Power, the electric utility that serves downtown, Midtown and parts of East Anchorage, Berkowitz and Logan were also at odds. Chugach Electric Association has offered to buy ML&P for about $1 billion, with about half of the money going toward wiping out ML&P's debt.
Logan, the former chair of the Chugach Electric Association board, said she initially supported the sale.
But she said she was critical of the way the deal had unfolded. She said the city should have gone through a formal competitive bidding process to pick Chugach, instead of internal discussions.
Berkowitz said, pointedly, that he would encourage "everyone who believes in smaller government" to support the sale.
He also said the public vote is only the very beginning of the process. It is not the actual sale, Berkowitz said.
But the sale would eventually lower Anchorage's overall tax burden, Berkowitz said, as money from the sale is reinvested in a city trust fund or used to pay down debt.
Note: A previous version of this story misstated the size of Anchorage's 2015 budget for the purposes of comparing it with 2018. It was $483 million, not $470 million. The story also inaccurately paraphrased a statement made by candidate Rebecca Logan about community policing. The story inaccurately reported police would spend less time responding to calls in the community policing model. In fact, while referencing a 2010 report, Logan said police should spend a certain portion of their shifts in neighborhoods talking to residents, in addition to responding to calls for service.