Fire department, homeless camp cleanup defended by residents in Anchorage budget hearing

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Drawing closer to an operating budget for 2019, the Anchorage Assembly wants final public input before adopting the official budget on Nov. 20.

But first, pump the brakes and rewind to last September -- when a miscalculation by the Municipality of Anchorage’s Office of Management and Budget showed a surplus in the city’s budget, when in reality there was a $3 million deficit.

The budget planning process started that very week despite some concern from the Assembly. Channel 2 asked the Office of Management and Budget Director Lance Wilber Wednesday what had happened with the deficit since.

“We took that into account and said, ‘Yep, we’re aware of it, and now we need to build a budget that closes it.” Wilber said. “And that’s what we did.”

Wilber says they took the miscalculated amount of $3 million dollars and applied it to the proposed budget for 2019.

The 2019 General Government Operating Budget will cost around $522 million -- and approximately $282 million will fall on taxpayers to balance out, according to Wilber.

The Assembly held its second public hearing for the proposed 2019 budget at its meeting Wednesday, and concerned Anchorage residents packed the Assembly Chambers to give testimony.

Potential cuts to public safety and calls to solve Anchorage’s homeless crisis rang throughout the chambers.

President of the Anchorage Firefighters Union, Local 1264, Mike Stumbaugh argues that cuts to the Anchorage Fire Department could jeopardize lives. He says one proposed cut would shut down a water truck and tender apparatus, compromising the department’s ability to effectively respond in emergency situations.

“Closing a water truck and water tender will increase response times dramatically, potentially be the difference between living and dying,” Stumbaugh said. “I’m not overstating the importance of these specialized apparatus.”

Stumbaugh says he’s been a civil servant in public safety for over 21 years. He says a delay of five minutes in delivering water to a burning home can be the difference in life or death, and cuts to public safety can affect victims of tragedies as well as the ability of fire fighters to do their jobs.

“We want to grow our services, not retract them,” Stumbaugh said. “Cutting over $2 million from public safety has the potential to be catastrophic, not only for my membership, but for the entire city of and its residents. I urge you to look elsewhere for savings, and not put our lives on the line.”

One resident who lives in the Baxter Senior Living community commented on how closing the water tender at station 14 would jeopardize his home, which he says is one of the areas in Anchorage most susceptible to wildfire.

“The forest around our community is literally a cemetery of dead spruce waiting to be burned,” he said. “When I tried to get home insurance through USAA, I was denied because of the wildfire danger in our location.

“Fires start small and get big. It’s vital to have first responders nearby to fight fires when they’re still small. For that, we are dependent on the water tender at station 14.”

Not all fires were literal at Wednesday’s public hearing – many came to express concern over what they said is the ineffectiveness of municipality efforts to combat the city’s homeless epidemic.

Anchorage resident Linda Chase lives in Rogers Park. “I don’t believe that there is a genuine effort to do anything about encampments all over our city,” she told assembly members.

Chase is part of a citizen’s coalition working to address homelessness. She proposed one way to curb the problem; finding budget money to contract businesses to clear homeless encampments.

“I am here tonight to plead with each of you, to beg you, to be a leader for our community, and to do something about these encampments,” Chase said.

Assembly member Christopher Constant says he implores people to share their concerns about the proposed budget for 2019 before the final vote on Nov. 20.

“The budget is the basis of how we operate for the next year, and the public always has an opportunity to make input, and once we’re operating in the next year it’s pretty hard to get your priorities met,” Constant said. “So if homelessness, the fire department, public safety are important issues to you, speak now.”

The last agenda item of the night was the first public hearing for the sale of Municipal Light and Power to Chugach Electric Association -- at a purchase price of $767,800,000, according to the municipality. Visit this link for more information on this sale.

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