The administration of Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson is proposing changes to how the city’s new alcohol tax money is spent, with much of it going to the homeless. Groups that pushed for the tax say the changes would be spending funds inappropriately and disproportionately, going against what voters intended when they approved the tax last year.
After the failure of a number of previous attempts to pass an alcohol tax, Anchorage voters approved one in a 2020 ballot initiative. The tax went into effect on February 1 and is expected to bring in between $ 11 million and $ 15 million a year. The 2022 proposal provides for $ 13.2 million in alcohol tax revenue.
When voters passed the tax, they did so with specific rules about how the money can be spent. Funding must go to three different spending categories: public safety, such as police and first responders; prevent child abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence; and funding for homelessness, mental health and addiction treatment. The money also cannot be used to replace programs, which means it cannot pay for programs or positions that already exist.
According to Bronson’s budget proposal, nearly two-thirds of the funds would go to homelessness. Bronson said he sees homelessness as the city’s most prevalent and urgent problem, and that the problem is also a priority for the Anchorage Assembly.
Still, Assembly Member Forrest Dunbar, who helped sponsor the alcohol tax proposal that voters approved, said he and others who lobbied for the tax were concerned about some of the cuts and spending in the mayor’s budget.
“One is that it’s not clear that all the things he’s trying to do fit into those buckets. Second, he appears to be filling positions, especially within the Ministry of Health. And third, it’s making cuts to some programs that are really helpful, especially in prevention, ”Dunbar said.
One of the most significant changes is to cut funding for early childhood education grants in half, from $ 2 million to $ 1 million.
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“Halving the funding for pre-K – that doesn’t align with the desire for a better future for our community,” said Tiffany Hall, CEO of Recover Alaska, a group focused on reducing binge drinking. alcohol and mischief, and a supporter of the ballot initiative.
As proposed, a majority of the budget focuses on emergency response rather than long-term prevention-focused solutions and programs, such as early childhood education, she said.
“It’s a job to help people today and then they don’t necessarily get into substance use disorders or violence in 10 or 20 years. We know it works, we know it pays off, ”Hall said.
Hall said the amount of money going to the homeless seems disproportionate. These funds are also primarily focused on emergency response, rather than programs that prevent homelessness or those that move people to permanent housing, she said.
For example, the proposed budget shows a $ 2 million increase in funding for a “shelter, day center and / or treatment center”, which falls under the homeless category.
“Providers know that overnight shelters and / or these types of emergency services aren’t the answer, and the answer really needs to be permanent supportive housing, and it just doesn’t seem like that’s what is. in this budget, ”Hall said. No funding is specifically earmarked for drug prevention and treatment, and that’s a problem too, she said.
A spokesperson for the mayor did not respond to questions about why the Bronson administration cut grants for early childhood education or why the administration proposed that the majority of funds go to the roaming.
The pandemic has dramatically worsened the homelessness crisis in the city, and Bronson and the Assembly have focused on finding common ground on homelessness policy. Earlier this month, they reached a compromise on an “exit strategy” from the use of Sullivan Arena as a mass homeless shelter, the result of a long negotiation process following clashes in the country. subject of a previous Bronson proposal for a temporary shelter for 450 people in East Anchorage.
Another big budget change Bronson wants the city to spend alcohol tax revenues would halve funding for the city’s new mobile crisis team and shift remaining funding from the fire department to the police department. The program currently sends a mental health clinician with a paramedic to answer behavioral health calls, and many see it as a key step towards improving the city’s mental health system as it reduces hospital visits. and unnecessary arrests and connects people in crisis to resources.
“Cutting the funding in half and turning it into a private contract run by the police department essentially ends the mental health first responder program or the mobile crisis team as we know it. And I think that’s not wise, ”Dunbar said.
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The mayor does not intend to cut services, but to “provide the same or better service at a lower cost” through the police department, Bronson spokesperson Corey Allen Young said in a statement.
Bronson believes the move will be more operationally efficient and financially and operationally responsible, he said. That’s because the police department currently has dedicated mental health resources, its mobile response team, which pairs officers with a behavioral health clinician or social service specialist on calls, Young said. . The alcohol tax funding will allow ODA to “increase and expand” this program, he said.
Dunbar has said restoring funding to the firefighting program will be his goal as the Assembly tackles the budget amendment process.
Young said the roughly $ 750,000 in savings resulting from the reduction was reallocated to pay for other priorities, including an epidemiologist, public health nurses and a health ministry nurse supervisor, and to others. homeless services.
Alcohol tax proponents question whether these positions – an epidemiologist and nurses – are an appropriate use of funds under the three areas of public safety, child abuse, and prevention of domestic violence and homelessness. Dunbar said it looks like the money will fill already existing positions, an illegal use. Still, these are good programs, he said.
“We don’t want to eliminate these public health nursing jobs, for example,” Dunbar said. “The question is whether we can legally do it with this source of funds. And if we can’t, then the whole budget needs to be reworked.