The Anchorage Assembly plans to meet on Friday morning to review its legislative wish list, and some members are hoping the work session will bring clarity to controversy over the port expansion project and its cost.
Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, says there’s been conflicting information from Mayor Dan Sullivan and the port director, former Governor Bill Sheffield.
Sullivan announced last Thursday that he plans to ask the legislature for $350 million dollars -- to fund a scaled-down version of the project. Sullivan says that’s enough money to finish work on the north end of the port, which would meet the city’s needs for the next 40 or 50 years. But Gara says that doesn’t match up with what Sheffield told him on Friday – that he plans to pursue a billion dollars in funding to complete the project.
“A billion dollars is an untenable amount of money in these economic times. Money does not grow on trees,” said Gara, who worries that the Sullivan administration might return in future years with more requests for port funding.
“I’m raising a red flag for people, that the story that they were given on Thursday is not the story that is accurate,” said Gara. “And the state, when it spends money, needs to have full information.”
Gara sent letters to lawmakers and assembly members raising concerns about the conflicting dollar amounts.
Other business leaders have heard Sheffield talk about completing the project as envisioned, which led to speculation that the mayor and port director are at odds.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, says if there is a conflict, he’s not worried.
“The controversy between the mayor and the port director is a tempest in a teapot --one of those issues where you get two public officials, both with meritorious but different opinions,” said Hawker. “But at the end of the day, the decision will be made by the person who has that authority, and that’s the mayor.”
“I don’t think Sheffield’s gone rogue,” said assembly member Ernie Hall. “I think you’ve got a project and you have a vision, and you hate to give up on that vision.”
Hall says he believes the mayor and the assembly are in agreement on downsizing the project, and have salvaged what is most important – expansion that will allow shipping companies like Tote and Horizon to continue operating safely. More than 80 percent of the goods that come to Alaska arrive through the Port of Anchorage.
The mayor declined requests for interviews, and Sheffield did not return calls. A port staffer said all questions about the matter were being referred to the mayor’s office .
In a statement, Mayor Sullivan said, “Despite reports to the contrary, my administration’s legislative request for funding for the Port of Anchorage expansion project remains at $350 million. When Governor Sheffield recently spoke with community leaders about the project, he did in fact say that the Port may, at some unspecified point in the future, decide to pursue more funding to complete additional phases of expansion. This request, if and when it comes, would not originate with my office.”
In the statement, Sullivan said, “It is unfortunate that some would attempt to politicize Governor Sheffield’s comments.”
Assembly member Elvi Gray Jackson says the Mayor’s office is responsible for the confusion. She says she understands Sheffield’s point of view, that a scaled-down project leaves a lot to be desired.
“I wish they’d get their act together and do a better job of communicating,” said Jackson.