By CRAIG CAMPBELL
These are trying times for Anchorage.
Coronavirus continues to spread, creating a challenging political environment for elected officials to navigate government’s role in protecting the population from a disease without unduly infringing on our constitutional rights.
An explosion in homelessness over the past five years is causing conflicts between elected officials’ desire to provide homeless services against protecting the general population from the associated crime and a general degradation of the quality of life being experienced in Anchorage.
This is combined with a financial crisis caused by the decline in oil prices and decreased pipeline flow, stressed by politicians’ spending habits at both the state and local level on services, which has nearly depleted the Constitutional Budget Reserve, using the citizens’ portion of the Permanent Fund to continue funding the highest per-capita budgets in the nation, and pushing local property taxes up.
Here in Anchorage, we look to our local leaders to provide leadership, leadership that is reflective of the common interest of the population, not based on a minority agenda or personal interests.
We also expect the Anchorage Assembly to respect the public process in reaching decisions that impact all of us. One might conclude from recent actions this is not happening.
This is not the first time Anchorage has faced challenges. Our city has a history of boom and bust economics and challenging social issues. Back in the mid 1980’s when I served on the Anchorage Assembly, we faced as much a financial crisis as we face today. Oil prices hovered around $9 per barrel, declining pipeline flow-through, property values crashed, over 2,000 homes in Anchorage in foreclosure, and our population decreased by over 10 percent in just three years.
In response, we slashed the city budget, stayed under the “Tax Cap,” and kept a strong municipal bond rating. We also had a homeless problem, created in part by the collapsed economy. Life safety services were provided, but not services to “enable” this lifestyle. The homeless population remained small and relatively steady over the nearly 10 years I served on the Assembly and our economy rebounded.
The upsurge in Anchorage homelessness these past five years has a direct correlation to the amount of government accommodation provided. The movie “Field of Dreams” made famous the adage, “If you build it, they will come.”
Nowhere is that more evident than here, where Mayor Berkowitz and the Anchorage Assembly have consistently provided more services and been more permissive on allowing homeless camps to proliferate. The result has been a staggering increase in the Anchorage homeless population. The problem hasn’t been solved, it’s exploded.
Now the Mayor and Assembly are seriously considering expanding services, without regard to public input and trying to skirt the public process.
Former Mayor Sullivan offered one very cost effective solution, that of expanding the existing Clitheroe Center. The Clitheroe Center provides both housing and rehabilitation services and has been an effective institution in our city for over 40 years.
Instead, the Assembly plans to move forward with purchasing properties in close proximity to residential neighborhoods, busy intersections, and popular shopping areas to accommodate the homeless, despite having held numerous public meetings where a resounding majority spoke against the purchases. They concluded the public process by holding a meeting closed to the public, except for one member of the public they invited to speak. This blatant affront to the public process was so obvious that a recall has been launched against the presiding officer of the meeting, Assembly member Meg Zaletel.
The current mayoral mandate that closes most restaurants to inside dining is a clear example of where the Anchorage Assembly should be critically challenging the mayor.
Under the mandate, indoor dining has been restricted, although outside dining is permitted. It has not gone unnoticed that Mayor Berkowitz has a financial tie to the restaurant Crush and that Crush was granted the authority to expand onto “G” Street to provide outside dining during this mandate period. “G” Street is a public roadway.
Anchorage taxpayers pay for that street to be used as a street, not as a private restaurant. Why is the Anchorage Assembly allowing the mayor to use a public street for a restaurant owned by business associates of the mayor to provide outdoor dining?
Whether it be a lack of fiscal discipline in the face of a financial crisis, disregard for the public process, lack of effective oversight of the executive branch, or continuing to enable the homeless population without trying to solve the problem, I ask, where is the Anchorage Assembly?
Craig E. Campbell served on the Anchorage Assembly from 1986 to 1995 and as lieutenant governor in 2009-2010. He was chief executive officer of the Alaska Aerospace Corporation and achieved the rank of lieutenant general (Alaska Department of Military and Veterans Affairs), major general (Air National Guard).