Anchorage officials say they will start using the budget approved by the Assembly, months after it was passed.
In December, the Assembly overrode vetoes from Mayor Dave Bronson to pass the budget. However, Bronson’s administration hasn’t been following that budget, and some programs aren’t getting the funding they expected.
There’s now uncertainty over how much money will go where — and who actually gets the final say on the city’s budget.
Anchorage Arts Commission chair Jade Aldridge says her group was set to receive $100,000 in grant funding from the city this year. But at a commission meeting in March, Aldridge and others were surprised to learn from city officials that amount would be significantly reduced.
“It wasn’t really explained to us if that money has been reallocated and moved somewhere else, or how we wouldn’t still have that money,” Aldridge said. “But that’s what we were told, that the money no longer exists and $65,000 is the amount that we now have.”
According to Anchorage law, the Assembly is responsible for approving the city budget. The mayor can veto parts of the budget, as Bronson did numerous items, including the community grants in late November. However, the Assembly can override the mayor’s veto with a 2/3rds vote, which they did.
Aldridge and the commission assumed that meant their grant amount would be restored.
“When we actually cited the Assembly’s restoration of those funds, we were basically told that the Assembly does not make this decision,” Aldridge said. “The mayor’s office does.”
That‘s where the legal debate begins.
In the mayor’s revised budget, there are several areas where funding allocated by the Assembly has either been reduced or eliminated by the mayor’s office. They include funding for building inspectors, health staff and police officers at schools.
The Bronson administration is using a section of the municipal code to justify those reductions. The code states that the Assembly can’t spend money unless the city chief fiscal officer can certify that the city has the money.
At a work session about the budget on Friday, Anchorage Office of Management and Budget Director Cheryl Frasca said that since the start of the year, the mayor’s office has been using a budget aligned with the CFO’s revenue projections, which they consider certifiable, as opposed to what the Assembly passed.
“We’re working from the one that does not include the funds that the CFO could not certify,” Frasca said. “And so that’s the budget from which we are working.”
Assembly member Forrest Dunbar, who co-chairs the Assembly’s budget and finance committee, doesn’t buy that argument. In his six years on the Assembly, he hasn’t seen the budget process go like this. He sees this as a separation of powers issue because it’s the Assembly’s job to determine the budget.
“What the mayor has claimed is that he has this additional power, using that funding certification statute, to say ‘No. We’re just not going to follow the Assembly approved budget,’” Dunbar said.
He argues the section of the code cited by the mayor’s team applies to actually spending money, not to budget planning.
Dunbar and other members have known about this for months, and he says they’ve brought it up with the administration several times at budget work sessions.
“And they’ve been saying, ‘Well, we’ll just kick it down the road to first-quarter budget revision,’” Dunbar said. “And the administration also assured us that there would be no real world consequences.”
Dunbar says the reduction in the arts grant is proof that there are real world consequences to the mayor’s budget interpretation. Officials with the Bronson administration declined to respond to requests for comment.
However, there are signs that the administration is moving toward using budget projections more in line with what the Assembly predicted.
Bronson recently announced he’s putting an additional $5 million toward public safety this year. He says projected revenues increased by $11.4 million after the first quarter of the fiscal year.
Midtown Anchorage Assembly Member Meg Zaletel says since Friday’s budget meeting, the Bronson administration has said they will transition back to the budget the Assembly passed in December for any changes during the first quarter budget revisions. However, she says that means the city will have to adjust some of its budget proposals from the ground up for a different budget.
“Now, because the mayor’s office hasn’t been using the approved budget, we can’t make such an easy calculation,” Zaletel said. “Because, are we just overspent, underspent, and to what, to the proposed budget or the approved budget? And so I’m hoping this substitute version gets us all back on the same baseline.”
Both Zaletel and Dunbar say they’re planning to introduce an ordinance that would clarify that a mayor can use the funding certification argument to stop the spending of money, not to prevent future appropriations in a budget.
As for those arts grants, applications for that funding are set to start coming in this week, even though it’s still unclear how much total city funding the commission will get for those grants.