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Like many property owners in Anchorage, in the last few weeks we received our property tax bill in the mail accompanied by a now-infamous letter from Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson—who just completed his first year in office—bemoaning the Anchorage Assembly for overriding about $5 million of his vetoes in this year’s budget. In a bit of misleading math, he claimed that the average homeowner would have seen their taxes fall by more than $560 if Assemblymembers had just fallen into line.
As already pointed out in the Anchorage Assembly’s response, the letter is misleading. The mayor neglected to factor in the rising property values in his savings—basically, property taxes rose throughout the city and, thus, the overall tax rate went down but Bronson applied the new lower tax rate to the pre-rise property values to get that $560 savings. Also, there’s the small matter of a huge influx of about $50 million in state school bond debt reimbursement money, which had a far larger impact on the budget than the $5 million in the restored vetoes.
But beyond the battle over twisted budget numbers and property taxes, Bronson’s core assertion here is that the Anchorage city government is bloated and has room for continued cuts. It’s a classic line from conservatives promising easy fixes for difficult problems, but it becomes particularly strained when you, well, look around the city and wonder if this is really what an apparently bloated city budget gets us.
Nearly every single day has produced one headline after another about the city’s Bronson administration’s handling of the closure of the homeless shelter at the Sullivan Arena and slapped-together plan of housing the city’s homeless population at Centennial Campground in East Anchorage. With little to no notice to the people affected, to the care providers, to the local communities, to other city officials and even the recreational campers who discovered their reservations were canceled when they arrived at the campground, the Bronson administration with its apparently bloated city budget has engineered a crisis of cruel ineptitude that he can’t even be bothered to take responsibility for or provide any help with.
“Centennial Campground is not being repurposed and is not part of the homelessness response,” he said during Tuesday’s Anchorage Assembly, neglecting to recognize that the municipal website’s “How You Can Help With Homelessness” link leads to a barebones website asking for people to donate oatmeal, spoons and paper towels to the campground as well as volunteer to make lunch or dinner.
Beyond telling folks to “Please drop off items for Centennial Campgrounds at the log cabin” there’s no other information on the page.
According to the reporting by the ADN, the needs of those at the campground have been met somewhat by a patchwork of volunteers exchanging cellphone numbers at the camp who’ve provided some meals and other services to help people get on their feet. All the goodwill, though, doesn’t solve underlying structural problems that come with warehousing people at a campground that’s a long walk from the closest place to buy food (which would be a gas station), pick up their mail or get their clothes washed. The site is also located by what Alaska Fish and Game biologist Dave Battle called a “bear factory,” according to another early report by the ADN.
“Just the nature of the change in the makeup of this campground — it’s really concerning,” Battle said. “I don’t have anything magical to say, I just really want to continue working with camp staff and brainstorming on how to minimize the attractiveness in this camp” to bears.
A week after giving that quote, Fish and Game killed four bears at the campground.
Now the response is to provide people at the campground with bear cans purchased at REI and providing them with one-time meals to discourage them from keeping food in their tents. Many of the “solutions” here are precisely the sort of thing that further destabilizes people experiencing homelessness.
The whole out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach may appease people who can’t be bothered to have to look at people experiencing homelessness, but this kind of treatment only ensures that vulnerable people on the fringes slip further into the fringes. For people who need stability and certainty, nothing has been stable or certain about the response of the city.
A city-wide mess
But look beyond the Centennial Campground and you’ll see other problems with how Anchorage—an apparently overfunded city—is being run.
The city’s parks, which are some of the city’s greatest selling points, are parched and overgrown. There aren’t as many lifeguards at the lakes. The Anchorage Public Library has slumped under the management of hatemonger July Eledge, whose alleged racist rants were handled by the Bronson administration with the firing of the director of the Office of Equal Opportunity and Human Resources Director Niki Tshibaka donning a “I’m with Judy” shirt to meetings. The Bronson administration’s handling of the pandemic, hoo boy, has been a lot with Holocaust comparisons, angry mobs, elevation of conspiracy theories, the overnight shuttering of city-backed testing, the unequal rollout of at-home tests and that time where administration employees tried to break into the hospital (which was apparently just part of why the city’s first Black police chief resigned).
Oh, and his administration got caught meddling with the drinking water.
Even if desirable parks, an inclusive public library system, a reasonable pandemic response, a police force accountable to the general public and fluorinated drinking water are no longer valued by the community, you’d think that business and economic development would be key priorities of this administration. But head over to the city’s planning office and you’ll find signs asking for patience with the long waits because they’re understaffed. There’s also talk about widespread understaffing problems at everything from the Health Department to the water utility.
We’re only scratching the surface here in what the Bronson administration has gotten up to in its first year but if is what a bloated government looks like, I’d hate to see what Bronson’s right-sized government looks like.
Some much-needed discipline
Now that Bronson is out of his first year in office, the Anchorage Assembly has gifted him with some accountability.
At the Anchorage Assembly’s meeting on Tuesday night, a veto-proof majority of members approved a long-awaited ordinance that lays out the procedures for removing an official from office. It, of course, made for another raucous night in the Anchorage Assembly chamber but the assembly approved handful of amendments that increased the burden of proof necessary to initiate the removal while adding some additional historical context about the importance of checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of government.
Bronson, who is as certain to veto it as the Anchorage Assembly is to override the veto, has used the ordinance to rally the troops by framing the measure as an attempted “coup” by the Anchorage Assembly’s centrist/progressive majority. They’re trying to remove me for a simple difference of politics, whines the mayor who’s supported two recalls targeting assemblymembers over far less than he’s done during his first year in office.
To be clear, the measure doesn’t allow for removal over simple differences of opinion but for things like perjury, falsifying records, nepotism and ordering municipal employees to break the law. Stuff, presumably, you’d want your city’s chief executive to not do. Here’s the full list:
- Acceptance of cash gifts from one doing business with the municipality
- Violating the city’s code of ethics
- Falsification of records
- Filing false reports
- Making personal use of municipal or school district property
- Destruction of municipal or school district property
- Actual or attempted official misconduct
- Ordering or knowingly allowing a person appointed by the mayor to order a municipal employee to undertake an unlawful act
- Substantial breach of the duty required by statute, code or charter
- Failure to faithfully execute the directives of a duly enacted ordinance
While you can look at that list and see several things from the last year that might qualify, keep in mind that the ordinance isn’t retroactive. It also doesn’t appear that the Anchorage Assembly—most of which really did try to give Bronson the benefit of the doubt when he entered office—is raring to use the measure, instead hoping that having the process in place can help get the ship back on course.
Like with their well-meaning “We owe it to the voters to give Bronson a shot” attitude, I have my doubts. I’m reminded of this quote from an interview Bronson had with Alaska Public early on in his tenure.
“In fact,” he said, “if I wake up in the morning and the Left—or the assembly, at least—is not attacking me, I don’t enjoy that.”
Well, at least he has something to look forward to because it sure doesn’t look like he enjoys running a city.