OPINION: A better choice for Anchorage
After Anchorage voters resoundingly rejected a 5 percent tax on alcohol sales last April, the backers of the levy immediately announced plans to try again on the next municipal ballot.
Proponents blamed the defeat on the boogeyman of the alcohol industry rather than voters’ rightful skepticism about how the money would be spent or a general opposition to taxing one group of residents to address the citywide problem of homelessness.
Assembly members Felix Rivera, Austin Quinn-Davidson and Forrest Dunbar reintroduced the tax — the ninth attempt to institute a city sales tax on alcohol since 1984 — this past Dec. 17 and it is scheduled to be deliberated at the Jan. 14 meeting.
This time, though, Anchorage voters may be given a better choice.
A coalition of stakeholders have teamed up on a proposal recently rolled out called “Project ‘20s Anchorage” they will present at a town hall meeting at Loussac Library on Jan. 7 at 6 p.m. (See project20sanchorage.com)
Rather than an open-ended 5 percent tax only on alcohol sales, the Project ‘20s proposal is for a time-limited 3 percent sales tax that would sunset after either five years or $375 million in revenue.
No debt would be taken on; projects will begin as revenue is sufficient. The administrative costs of the sales tax would be paid for from the sales tax revenue, and as money comes in it will be placed into interest-bearing accounts to grow. In other words, the Assembly can’t touch it.
Instead of a nebulous guarantee to use tax revenue on various services, the Project ‘20s plan has a specific list of projects ranging from necessary infrastructure to desirable amenities as well as earmarking $80 million of the tax revenue to create an Anchorage Housing Trust that would spin off $3.5 million per year to pay for operating expenses targeted toward permanent supportive housing.
On the infrastructure side of the list is a new fire station for Eagle River to reduce currently unacceptable response times and in a similar vein improve evacuation and access routes for homes on the Anchorage Hillside that are also threatened by the possibility of wildfires.
Revenue would be used for long-overdue improvements to the city’s crown jewel of a trail system that has fallen into disrepair with invasive species and overgrown brush that reduces visibility and allows for both illegal camping and occasionally dangerous wildlife encounters.
Using an invention right from the University of Alaska Anchorage, the Project ‘20s plan calls for installing the UAA’s patented “Tundra Tape” to heat Downtown sidewalks that will both improve safety and accessibility but also reduce maintenance costs for snow and ice removal.
An arts district would be created on Fourth Avenue with widened sidewalks to allow for streetside patio seating; Fourth Avenue would also see improvements to mark the “Mushing District” where the annual ceremonial start of the Iditarod takes place.
The Performing Arts Center would get a much-needed overhaul as it approaches 40 years old dating back to its construction as part of “Project ‘80s” when Anchorage received an infusion of state cash as oil money rolled in to build amenities such as the PAC, Loussac and the Sullivan Arena.
Finally, part of the sales tax revenue would create a Ship Creek Promenade and Brewing District to take advantage of Anchorage’s natural ocean front and scenery with a walkable destination both for visitors disembarking the railroad or cruise ships as well as a desirable home for restaurants, shops and residential development.
An outdoor amphitheater — another desperately needed amenity Anchorage lacks in comparison to similar sized peer cities — may be part of the final proposal as well.
The days of Christmas tree capital budgets that paid for Project ‘80s or more recently the $130 million Alaska Airlines Center are simply over. The time is now for Anchorage to take care of itself.
The municipality has pressing needs for both infrastructure that improves safety for our residents as well as the kind of amenities that will be a source of pride.
The tax is set at a reasonable level and contains exceptions for unprepared food, feminine products, medicine and medical services, among others, and is capped at no more than $900 on any transaction.
There will be no debt and no Assembly sticking its hands in the jar for any other purposes. For those who just have to tax alcohol, they’ll get 3 percent instead of 5.
Most importantly, after the target amount is raised or after five years, it will automatically end.
Reintroducing the alcohol tax would be the definition of insanity by doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result.
Continuing to complain about a lack of state funding or a tight municipal budget as a reason we can’t take on homelessness in a serious fashion is like hitting ourselves in the head with a hammer because it feels so good when we stop.
We can keep trying the same thing, or we can stop hitting ourselves in the head.
We could do something different, and what Project ‘20s offers is a chance to make Anchorage better for generations for everyone rather than taxing one group to put a bandaid on one problem.
Voters deserve a better option than another doomed try at taxing alcohol. The Assembly should give it to them.
Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].