Alaska News

Two more examples of how Anchorage can work better

I met my neighbor, Della, long before I started running for mayor. She's lived in her house in our neighborhood since 1957. She is not a complainer, the kind of good neighbor who puts up with noisy kids and loose dogs without a peep. But she had a complaint when we were talking the other day. She told me that the tax assessment on her house has gone up a lot in the past few years. I looked into it. She was right: The city says the house is worth 42 percent more than it was in 2002. I asked if she had remodeled the house. She admitted she had. In 1962.

Della also wondered why her house valuation went up $4,500 from last year. Not the land, the house. I didn't have an answer for her. She told me she wasn't sure but she thought her house was worth less this year than last. I think she has a point.

What if Della wanted to appeal her assessment? Who would hear the appeal and how would it work? The problem is that she would have to appeal the assessor's decision to the Assessor's office. The Assessor's office staffs, trains, maintains and otherwise handles the panel hearing an appeal. The appeals panel -- called the Board of Equalization -- has become an arm of the Assessor's office.

Now, I served as a prosecutor but I never had a case where I got to be the judge too. I don't believe it's fair for the Assessor's office to have that much influence over the review of their decisions.

Does the assessor have too much influence? Judge for yourself. In the past four years, 1,023 people have appealed their home valuations. Just 143 people -- 14 percent -- got their valuations changed. Now maybe ordinary citizens are wrong about the value of their homes 86 percent of the time. Or maybe our system is broken.

Unlike Della, Jackie is a new acquaintance, someone I've met on the campaign trail. Jackie started a year ago with an idea for a coffee shop with an indoor playground for kids. Great idea. She has seven permits hanging on the outside of the building and is still not authorized to open her shop.

She seemed to do everything right. She hired an architect and got real lawyers to draw up documents. But as soon as she overcame one official roadblock, another one was raised. It was like she was being forced to play Whack-A-Mole.


She and I agree that it is important to be sure that the building meets the law, particularly where children are involved. But is it too much to ask that all the rules be listed on a single sheet of paper at the start of a project? Or that an ordinary citizen trying to start a business gets clear, fast solutions to problems? I don't think so. A good first step to doing that is to make one of the mayor's special assistants a small business ombudsman to push permits for small businesses through the system.

We've been doing a lot of talking about the big issues -- balancing the budget, repairing the property tax cap and streamlining city services -- during the mayoral campaign. But I've been doing a lot of listening too. I'm finding that it is often the things that don't make headlines, like realizing the dream of opening a small business or getting a fair assessment, that matter most to people.

Whoever is elected mayor in April, or more likely May, should put these two issues at the top of his or her list. I will. Anchorage can and should work better for Della and Jackie.

Anchorage mayoral candidate Eric Croft is a former state legislator and municipal prosecutor.