To tax or not to tax alcohol: A divided Anchorage
Supporters say it’ll help to raise about $13 million to fight homelessness and addiction in Anchorage, with minimal impact to your wallet — about 40 cents more for a six-pack of beer, 50 cents for a $10 mixed drink, or $2 for a $50 bottle of wine.
Opponents say Ballot Measure 9 comes loaded with potential for unintended consequences that could make homelessness worse in Anchorage.
“We’re fighting it big time,” says Darwin Birwir, Jr., owner of downtown bar Darwin’s Theory. “The public doesn’t want it.”
One of Birwir’s longtime customers, Shirley Spurlock, agrees.
“It’s all ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t see where any of the taxes are going to go to saving the people.”
With frustration running high in Anchorage as crime and homeless camps have encroached on neighborhoods across the city, the hospitality industry believes the alcohol tax stands a good chance of passing.
“Our industry wants to be supportive of the community,” said Sarah Oates, president of the Alaska Cabaret Hotel Restaurant and Retail Association, also known as Alaska CHARR.
Oates believes, however, there are better ways to combat homelessness than make one industry foot the bill.
“A lot of the crime that we’ve been hearing about in the last two years that’s just blown up all over the city has been directly related to opioids,” Oates said. “Yet there is no proposal to tax the opioid industry at all.”
After marijuana was legalized, the city levied a 5 percent retail sales tax on the drug. Supporters of the proposed tax say it’s only fair that alcohol be treated the same.
Oates says most people don’t realize that alcohol is already heavily taxed at the second-highest rate in the nation.
“The marijuana industry doesn’t pay taxes at the federal level, whereas the alcohol industry pays pretty high taxes federally and at the state level,” Oates said.
She also worries about the economic impact.
“Right now, it’s a struggling economy,” Oates said. “I think it’ll not only hurt small businesses and consumers who just want to go and enjoy a beer after work, but I think it’s also going to have negative impacts on the community as a whole.”
Alaska CHARR also says Seattle’s out-of-control homeless problem should be a warning to Anchorage.
“We’ve looked at studies from Seattle, which has a very similar model to what the mayor is proposing, and homelessness and substance abuse has gone up in Seattle,” Oates said. “They spent $1 billion in tax money a year on homelessness and it’s only gotten worse.”
Nancy Burke, housing and homeless services coordinator for the city, called those numbers misleading — and says Anchorage, unlike Seattle, has actually seen homeless numbers drop, as the city has stepped up efforts to provide housing and services.
Burke points to a summer census of homeless campsites that counted 1,304 homeless adults in 2017, compared to 1,064 in 2018. She says complaints from citizens have also dropped by 12 percent in the same time period.
Despite that, the tax could be a tough sell — even in neighborhoods like East 23rd Avenue, which co-exist with camps off the Chester Creek Trail. Residents on that midtown street refer to a wooded area behind them as The Hole.
Anchorage Assembly member Christopher Constant is familiar with the area. He recently reported a fire in the woods.
“Just this morning as I was driving up Gambell Street towards work, there was a huge 250-foot-tall black smoke cloud from a fire burning right in the middle of The Hole here,” Constant said.
Several fires have been reported in the same area in the last year. Some started out as campfires and raced into the treetops.
Neighbors like Tom Morrison worry that if one of these fires breaks out in the summer, it could spark a wildfire that could race through the whole neighborhood. For Morrison, the problem got a little too close when campers moved in right behind his backyard fence.
“No matter how much help you extend out to them, they don’t want it. This is where they want to be,” Morrison said.
“You could throw a $100 million at this,” he said, expressing doubt that anything would change.
Part of the problem, he says, is his neighborhood’s central location.
“We live in an area that is convenient to everything in town,” Morrison said. “We are in a prime location. Well, it makes it a prime location for them, too.”
Morrison says he’ll definitely be a “no” vote for the alcohol tax, because he’s lost faith in the city’s ability to enforce eviction laws and doesn’t trust its homeless numbers. He believes the problem has gotten much worse in the last year.
Peggy Bergstrom, who lives down the street from Morrison, is not sure how she’ll vote.
She definitely sees the need. Over the years, Bergstrom says she’s encountered more mental illness among the homeless who frequent her neighborhood.
“My heart goes out to them, if this is the only way they can survive,” Bergstrom said. “That is a terrible place for them to be if they have mental illness.”
Bergstrom says she would support the tax if she could be sure most of it would go to help the homeless deal with addiction.
Constant is hopeful that the measure will pass. He is one of 10 assembly members who voted to put the tax on the ballot in April’s election. Only one, John Weddleton, opposed it.
Constant pointed to the burned-out camp in the woods, noting the charred tent and mattress, as well as clothing left behind.
“First off, there are people that were living here and that’s just a tragedy,” Constant said. “Second off, the people that were living here are now displaced. Who knows where they’re at?”
Constant believes the tax will help to make Anchorage safer and give the city the resources to clear out more camps.
“The cost of not doing anything is that things will stay the same and it’s not OK,” Constant said.
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