Tax proposals get chilly reception at Chugiak town hall

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 15:15
  • Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz addresses the crowd during a municipal town hall meeting at the Steve Primis Auditorium at Chugiak High on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. About 100 people attended the meeting, which was called to discuss the proposed municipal budget and potential new revenue options currently being proposed by the mayor and assembly members. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • Anchorage Assemblyman Fred Dyson listens to testimony during a municipal town hall meeting at the Steve Primis Auditorium at Chugiak High School on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)
  • From left, Anchorage Assembly members Felix Rivera, Crystal Kennedy, John Weddleton and Meg Zalatel listen to testimony during a municipal town hall meeting at the Steve Primis Auditorium at Chugiak High School on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. The meeting was also attended by assembly members Suzanne LaFrance and Fred Dyson. (Matt Tunseth / Chugiak-Eagle River Star)

Temperatures were below zero Wednesday night outside the Steve Primis Auditorium in Chugiak, where public reaction to a trio of new tax proposals presented by Anchorage Assembly members wasn’t much warmer.

“I’m for no taxes,” Chugiak’s Jo Al Hintz told assembly members in what would prove to be a common theme among those who testified. “I don’t want any taxes — you spend the money you’ve got and then it’s over.”

About 100 people attended the meeting, with more than a dozen sharing their thoughts on the municipality’s budget situation. Like Hintz, most said they’re generally against new taxes and want to see the assembly look for ways to either save money or spend it more efficiently. The comments followed a presentation on the budget by Jason Bockenstedt, deputy to Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz, as well as brief outlines of three new tax proposals being floated by members of the assembly.

Bockenstedt began the meeting by explaining the $539.2 million operating budget passed unanimously by the Assembly in November is balanced — but drastic reductions in state revenue sharing over the past five years have left the municipality paying for more and more things the state formerly helped with.

“In the mid 1980s almost 45% of the municipality’s budget was paid for by the state. What does it look like today? It’s less than 1%,” he said.

That puts municipal lawmakers and administrators in a bind, he said. Because Anchorage has a property tax cap in place, the Assembly has little way to generate new revenue for essential services such as police, fire and road maintenance — which combined make up more than half the overall budget.

“As this money decreases, we have no other ability to raise additional revenue,” he said.

Bockenstedt told the crowd Anchorage residents actually have one of the lowest tax burdens in the country. Pointing to a slide showing taxes for a hypothetical family of four in the largest city in each state and the District of Columbia, he said Anchorage’s estimated tax — about $3,300 per year — ranked “dead last” on the list.

Assembly members have proposed three different ideas to raise money and hope to put one before voters in April.

The first discussed Wednesday, championed by Eagle River’s Fred Dyson, would enact a 3% sales tax, with half the revenues going to property tax relief and the other half going to pay for a combination of police, prosecutors and mental health services for those convicted of crimes.

The second proposal, by Assembly Chair Felix Rivera and Assemblymebers Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar, would impose a 5% alcohol tax to pay for police, provide “funding to combat and address child about, sexual assault, and domestic violence;” and fund more substance abuse and mental health programs.

A third similar proposal by Assemblyman John Weddleton and Meg Zaletel would impose a 2% alcohol tax that could be raised up to 5% and would go toward health and homeless-related purposes in the form of detox or long-term addiction facilities, temporary shelters, behavioral health programs and homeless prevention and homeless camp abatement.

The Assembly has said it hopes to put just one new tax proposal before the voters in April. A fourth revenue-generating proposal — creating an Alaska community dividend program with use of Permanent Fund revenue — has also been hailed by Berkowitz, though that would require statewide action.

Rivera, Weddleton and Dyson each outlined the proposals during the meeting, which was also attended by Assembly members Zaletel, Crystal Kennedy, Kameron Perez-Verdia and Suzanne LaFrance.

Several members of the public who spoke up Wednesday did acknowledge the need to pay for homeless services and public safety.

“I believe we owe it as a civilized people to help these people out,” said Eagle River’s George Rhyneer.

But most said the Assembly needs to look more at cuts or efficiencies — such as public transportation — before asking taxpayers for more money.

“You need to look at those things before you start coming for more money,” argued Bob Kuhn.

Jennifer Bundy echoed those sentiments, saying the municipality needs to look at budget reductions before trying to increase revenue.

“We need to look at where cuts can be made,” she said.

Jason Rampton agreed.

“We can’t keep taxing people for money they don’t have,” he said.

But without some kind of funding for more mental health services and detox facilities, a minority of those who testified argued the municipality will continue to struggle with issues like crime and homelessness. Recovering addict Jonathon Cannon told the crowd he’s not sure what solution is right, but implored the Assembly to find a way to fund more treatment facilities.

“Please, please get the detox center,” he said.

The meeting was the second of three being held around the municipality. The first was held Tuesday in Anchorage with a third scheduled for tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the Girdwood Commnuity Room. The assembly will consider the three tax proposals at its Jan. 14 meeting.

A recording of Wednesday’s meeting, as well as the text of the three proposed ordinances and other information on the budget, can be found on the Anchorage Assembly page on the municpality’s website.

Email Star editor Matt Tunseth at [email protected] or call (907) 257-4274.

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