Jan. 15—After December's series of heavy snowfalls, the Municipality of Anchorage took an unusual step to clear the streets. Facing formidable accumulation and consternation over what many saw as a sluggish response, the city allowed private contractors tasked with clearing road service areas in Eagle River and on the Hillside to do work within the Anchorage Bowl, which is maintained through a separate set of public funds.
In the weeks since, as Assembly members have learned more about those arrangements, they've called them "abnormal" and say they raise questions about transparency and legality.
"We need to know what's going on, because it's gray," Assembly Vice Chair Christopher Constant said earlier this month during a work session focused on the city's snow plow response.
No one involved in the city's cleanup from the December storms disputes that it was a big job to address. Both Assembly members and Bronson administration officials have gone out of their way during public meetings to praise the around-the-clock work of maintenance crews and contractors who, weeks later, are still working to widen streets, eliminate berms and haul away snow.
At issue for Assembly members are the steps the Bronson administration unilaterally took to deal with that work, which they say may have violated procurement rules in a way that is financially beneficial to companies, at least one of which has been publicly aligned with the mayor's office — and only telling the Assembly about it after the fact.
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"Had we not really started to drill down and had that work session, when would we have been told this was happening?" Assembly member Meg Zaletel said in an interview this past week. "The lack of details is partly why I find this shocking. Like, it's already happened."
Paying for the work
The basic mechanics are this: To pay for extra capacity hauling snow in the Anchorage Bowl, the Bronson administration says it adjusted pre-existing contracts for the companies that handle snow removal in Eagle River and on the Hillside. Those areas of the municipality handle upkeep and plowing through the Road Maintenance Service Area Program, in which far-flung neighborhoods essentially tax themselves to pay for their road infrastructure. The service areas are governed by their own locally elected board of supervisors and funded by residents. Within the Anchorage Bowl, by contrast, those functions are handled by the city's Department of Maintenance and Operations.
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As the Bronson administration was scrambling to dig out from the December storms, they authorized the private companies attached to the outlying service areas to come into town and supplement city crews working to plow and haul.
From the north, trucks and drivers were supplied by McKenna Brothers Paving, the contractor in charge of snow removal in the Chugiak-Birchwood-Eagle River Rural Road Service Area, or CBERRRSA, pronounced in conversation as "suh-BUR-suh." Overseeing some 350 lane-miles of roads, CBERRRSA is the most expensive of the service areas, budgeted at close to $8 million for this year — most of which goes to McKenna Brothers for contracted services. That arrangement, signed under the previous administration in spring of 2021, is for up to $7 million a year "to provide year-round road maintenance for CBERRRSA area," according to procurement documents. That same year, McKenna Brothers very publicly supported conservative political causes, spending heavily in support of Bronson's election and funding a recall effort against Zaletel in her Midtown Assembly seat.
But nowhere in the contract is there mention of Eagle River property owners' tax dollars paying for the CBERRRSA contractor to do work in the Bowl, the roads of which constitute the Anchorage Roads and Drainage Service Area, or ARDSA, pronounced "ARD-suh." And the Assembly never saw a proposal for a supplemental contract to pay for extra trucks — around 15 heavy-duty side dumps. As of last week they had hauled some 6,600 truckloads of snow out of downtown, according to Lance Wilber, head of the city's Office of Economic and Community Development. In a regular year, the city hauls off around 6,000 loads the whole winter.
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Different contractors attached to service areas on the Hillside were doing much the same elsewhere in the ARDSA, though at a lesser scale; that cluster of neighborhoods on the Hillside, the Limited Road Service Area, makes up the LRSA, or "LUR-suh."
So Assembly members wanted to know: How is all that work getting paid for?
"The contracts were amended to change the geographical location," said Adam Trombley, Bronson's chief of staff.
He added that the contractor was tracking where they were working, so that they could eventually bill for the services accordingly.
"If they are plowing in Chugiak-Eagle River, they are paid out of CBERRRSA," Trombley said. "If they're plowing in Anchorage in the ARDSA area, they're paid out of ARDSA. So that's how they're tracked."
This explanation perplexed and irritated several Assembly members in attendance at the work session, who went on to press the administration on how such maneuvering did not violate basic rules about executing public contracts.
Acting Municipal Attorney Blair Christensen told members that as long the contractor did not go over the not-to-exceed amount specified in the contract, then the particular fund the money came out of was irrelevant.
"'Fund source' is not one of the required Assembly approvals under Title 7," Christensen said, referring to the section of municipal code covering procurement and contracts for professional services.
In a testy exchange, Zaletel, who is an attorney, pushed back on the administration's interpretation of the relevant statutes, and asked for a clearer accounting of the legal and financial mechanisms at work.
"It appears abnormal," Zaletel said. "Who's making that call that we're going to use a contract from the CBERRRSA or LRSA to do work in the ARDSA? Because we wouldn't anticipate that happening. It's not budgeted. And that's where I'm getting lost."
"We have something draft-ready," said Maintenance and Operations Director Saxton Shearer. "We have very detailed accounting of these costs and where these monies come from."
"This was a major concern of the acting city manager," he added.
As of Friday, more than a week after the work session, Zaletel said no such report or document had been provided by anyone in the administration.
"I would appreciate some clarification so I can track where those dollars are being funded," said Assembly Chair Suzanne LaFrance. "And if service area organizations are shouldering some of the burden for general government areas, then I think there will need to be some sort of reconciliation of funding."
'Loosey goosey contracting'
Constant said the arrangement reminded him of the procurement violations involving the East Anchorage homeless shelter and navigation center, in which members of the Bronson administration are alleged to have used a small contract the Assembly approved to green-light millions of dollars in unauthorized construction work the city may now be liable to pay back. It also mirrors allegations made by terminated city manager Amy Demboski in a scorching letter sent by her attorney Wednesday to Bronson laying out her wrongful termination for, among other things, flagging contract rule violations.
At one point, Constant sarcastically thanked the residents of Eagle River and South Anchorage service areas for financing additional snow removal inside the Anchorage Bowl, and said the municipality would not be cutting any additional checks to the contractors if they went over their budgets.
"If it comes back to us in the next weeks or months that those snow hauling contracts exceeded their amount that was authorized under the initial contract by the amount that requires Assembly approval, then the contractor will be on the hook for their own expenses," Constant said. "Because loosey goosey contracting is not acceptable."
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It is not clear the administration broke any rules. The issue of funding sources and procurement protocols for contractor work in various service areas is far from self-evident. Shearer and other members of the administration stressed to the Assembly that they were doing the best they could in a bad situation to clean up the roads in whatever ways they could, and that the mayor had already asked for "an after-action report" on this year's snow removal fiasco and avenues for improvement, according to Trombley.
Zaletel is not entirely convinced it's appropriate or legal to simply discard what she views as central terms for contracts, such as deciding snow removal work purchased for Eagle River can, in fact, take place anywhere else as long as it doesn't cost extra. But even if the recent maneuver passes legal muster, it makes the task of accounting for public spending and services a lot trickier.
"Feels like not knowing about it until weeks after it happened is the problem," Zaletel said. "The lack of transparency that it happened."
Without a clear understanding of how and where money is being spent on snow removal, she added, elected officials can't knowledgeably budget and plan for the next time the city gets walloped with heavy accumulation — something predicted to become more common in Southcentral Alaska as climate change adds more moisture to the air.
"I think all of my constituents are really wanting to make sure we're transparent about how we spend money, particularly between different service areas," Zaletel said. "Did we need to dip into basically the Chugiak-Eagle River service area to clear Anchorage roads? Was it that severe of a snow event?"