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Report: Maintain city services, demand efficiencies, diversify tax base

Large majority says not to raise property taxes ANCHORAGE- Heidi Gantwerk from Viewpoint Learning presents to Assembly members and the mayor today the final report from all four community budget dialogues  held last month in Anchorage.

“It’s clear that citizens who participated in these dialogues love Anchorage and what it offers,” said Gantwerk. “That said, they came to understand the budget challenges the municipality faces. While they would like to see the current level of government services maintained, they are eager to look at alternate ways to pay for them besides relying solely on property taxes.”

Another key takeaway from Viewpoint Learning’s report to the community was the demand that city government become more efficient in its operations. “The perception that city departments could deliver services in a more efficient, streamlined manner was a constant throughout all four meetings,” said Gantwerk. “Municipal officials now need to demonstrate to taxpayers that they are looking at ways to do things better before they go back and ask for more.”

Viewpoint Learning’s report was based on the participation of approximately 350 residents who attended the early August meetings. In addition to the materials discussed in the small groups, each participant provided a written survey at the meeting’s conclusion. The report utilized both the group and individual feedback to tabulate the results.

Among the findings related to services are:

  • Residents don’t want to see large service cuts− inefficiencies need to be addressed instead;
  • If cuts are necessary, focus on areas where the largest perceived inefficiencies and most sizable budgets exist, including: administration and support services, maintenance and operations, and the police department;
  • Maintain and expand when the budget improves: Fire and EMS, police, public transportation, and services provided by Health and Human Services.

Among the findings related to revenues are:

  • Citizens are generally willing to raise taxes if it is necessary to maintain essential services- IF efficiency comes first (66 percent generally willing to pay more);
  • This increase should NOT come in the form of higher property taxes (62 percent oppose increases in property taxes, 73 percent want to see a more diversified tax base even if the total amount in taxes collected remains at current levels).
  • Among the new taxes proposed were an alcohol excise tax, a sales tax (either seasonal or year-round) and an increase in user fees and fines.

The general consensus among participants was to tax what people do (e.g. buy alcohol or tobacco, rent city facilities, run red lights) rather than what people have (e.g. property tax).

“I want to thank the dedicated and professional staff at Viewpoint Learning for their weeks of hard work on this report. We now have a good idea of what citizens want and expect from their local government, including ways to pay for services,” said Mayor Dan Sullivan. ”I also want to thank the hundreds of citizens who took time out of their busy schedules to attend these dialogues.”

A sizable majority of participants also came away from the experience with a good impression: 90 percent of attendees said the discussion was very or somewhat useful in helping them think about the budget issue, and 81 percent said their participation impacted their thinking about issues facing Anchorage.

Because so many people, some of whom were turned away due to space limitations, showed interest in the dialogues, the same survey questions can be accessed online at http://www.muni.org/ under “2011 Budget Survey.” The online survey will remain active throughout the 2011 budget process and will provide continual input to the mayor and Assembly members as they make budget decisions.

The mayor’s administration and the Assembly hosted the dialogues to gain insight into what kinds of budget choices citizens would make given clear, precise financial information. Co-conveners included the University of Alaska Anchorage, the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, Commonwealth North and the Eagle River Chamber of Commerce. Funding for the dialogues was provided by the Rasmuson Foundation, Northrim Bank, First National Bank of Alaska and the Municipality of Anchorage.

A full copy of the Viewpoint Learning report is available online at www.muni.org/mayor titled “Community Dialogue Report.”

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