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The State of Alaska's Constitution, Article X, Section 2, provides that two forms of local government, cities and organized boroughs, form the basic structure of Alaska's Municipal Government. Both cities and boroughs are municipal corporations and political subdivisions of the State of Alaska. (AS 29.04.010 -.020)
Alaska's Constitution also requires that the entire state be divided into organized or unorganized boroughs, based on standards such as natural geographic boundaries, economic viability, and common interests. (Article X, Section 3 ) For the most part, organized boroughs were formed in those areas where economies were better developed. The large portion of the state that has not incorporated as an organized borough is designated the unorganized borough.
In a city, the governing body is the city council (Alaska Constitution, Article X, Section 8) and in a borough, the governing body is the borough assembly (Constitution, Article X, Section 4 and AS 29.20.050). In the unorganized borough, the state legislature serves as the governing body and has oversight of services that would otherwise be provided by the organized borough (e.g. education, planning and zoning). (Alaska Constitution, Article X, Section 6). Composition and apportionment of the municipal assembly and council are spelled out in AS 29.20.060 -.130.
A city government exercises its powers within an established boundary, normally encompassing a single community. Under the state's constitution, a city is also part of the borough in which it is located (Alaska Constitution, Article X, Section 7). An organized borough exercises its powers on a regional basis and may provide services on three levels: areawide (throughout the borough), nonareawide (that part of the borough outside of cities), and service areas (size and make up vary).
Cities and boroughs are further organized as either home rule or general law municipalities. A home rule municipality spells out its powers and duties through its adopted charter ratified by the voters, and it can exercise any power not prohibited by state or federal law or by the home rule charter. A general law municipality's powers and duties are derived through established law. (Alaska Constitution, Article X, Sections 9, 10, and 11 and AS 29.04.010.)
Cities and boroughs are also divided into classes with varying powers and responsibilities. (Alaska Constitution, Article X, Section 3, 5, and 7 and AS 29.04.020.) These are:
Classes of Local Government in Alaska
(Note: Unified municipalities are treated as boroughs in statute and regulation.)
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What is the legal basis for local municipal government in Alaska?
The State of Alaska Constitution, Article X, establishes the framework for local government in Alaska, provides for creation and organization of local government, and bestows powers to local government.
The intent of the framers of the constitution was to provide for maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units and tax levying jurisdictions. To do this, the constitution vested local government powers, including the power to tax, in boroughs and cities. The Alaska Constitution also provides for a "liberal construction" of the powers of local governments, which essentially means if an act isn't prohibited in law, a local government is probably free to act on the matter.
The constitution provided the basic framework for Alaska's municipal governments and delegated the responsibility for filling in the details to the legislature. Title 29 of the Alaska Statutes establishes the procedure by which municipalities are organized and municipal powers prescribed by law. The constitution also provides for a Local Boundary Commission to review and approve local government boundaries, and an agency in the executive branch of state government to advise and assist local governments (this agency is the Division of Community and Regional Affairs within the Department of Community and Economic Development). (State of Alaska Constitution, Article X, Section 12 and Section 14)
How is municipal government structured in Alaska?
Article X of the state's constitution provides that the legislature classify the two forms of local government, cities and boroughs, and prescribe their powers and functions. The legislature has classified local government in the following manner and prescribed varying powers and duties for the different classes of cities and boroughs:
What is the difference between a city and borough?
A city generally exercises its powers within an established boundary that normally encompasses a single community, while a borough (intermediate-sized governments - much larger than cities) provides services and exercises power on a regional basis. Under the state's constitution, a city is also part of the borough in which it is located.
An organized borough may provide services on three levels. These are: areawide (throughout the borough), non-areawide (that part of the borough outside of cities), and service areas (size and make-up vary). A borough also has the flexibility and capacity to provide services at the community level, typically through the creation of service areas. (State Constitution, Article X, Section 5)
What is the difference between a general law and home rule municipality?
A home rule municipality adopts a charter subject to voter approval and has all powers not prohibited by law or charter. (State Constitution, Article X, Section 9, 10, 11 and AS 29.04.010.) A general law municipality is unchartered and its powers are granted by law. (State Constitution, Article X, Section 4 and 7 and AS 29.04.020.)
General Law Cities and Boroughs. State law and local ordinances define the powers, duties, and functions of general law cities.) There are two classes of general law cities -- first and second class. Typically, both classes provide a broad range of municipal services including, but not limited to, police protection, parks, sewer and water utilities. The significant difference between the two classes of city includes taxing authority, responsibility for schools, and the powers and duties of the mayor. A community must have at least 400 permanent residents to form a first class city.
There are two classes of general law boroughs: first class and second class. The primary difference between the two classes of boroughs is the manner in which they adopt additional powers.
Home Rule Cities and Boroughs. Being a Home Rule municipality means the municipality can exercise any power not specifically prohibited by law or the municipality's charter. First and second class boroughs and first class cities may adopt a home rule charter, which defines their powers and duties. (AS 29.10.010). AS 29.10.200 contains a list of state laws that limit certain things that a home-rule charter can legislate on. A community must have at least 400 permanent residents to form a home rule city. Unincorporated regions of the state may incorporate directly as a Home Rule borough.
What is the difference between the organized and unorganized borough?
The state constitution requires that the whole state be divided into boroughs. The areas of the state have incorporated boroughs under state law are called the organized borough. The area outside the boundaries of an incorporated municipality is called the unorganized borough.
Currently 16 organized boroughs cover about half of the state and the rest of the state is considered the unorganized borough. The governing body in the organized borough is the assembly, which is elected by residents of the borough it represents. The governing body of the unorganized borough is the Alaska State Legislature (Alaska State Constitution, Article X, Section 6.) Some of the populated area of the unorganized borough may have a form of local government or service organization other than an incorporated municipality, such as a tribal council or non-profit community association.
Organized Boroughs. An organized borough is a municipal corporation and political subdivision of the State of Alaska that provides services and exercises powers on a regional basis. Organized boroughs are intermediate-sized governments - much larger than cities. All organized boroughs have three mandatory powers: education, planning and land use regulation, and property assessment and taxation (AS 29.35.150-.180). All boroughs may adopt a broad range of additional powers on an areawide, non-areawide, or service area basis. (AS 29.35.200-.220) "Areawide" means "throughout the borough," while "non-areawide" means "in all of the areas outside cities." Service areas vary greatly, ranging from small neighborhood road districts to large, highly populated urban areas.
The Unorganized Borough. A large portion of the state that has not incorporated as an organized borough is designated the unorganized borough. In the unorganized borough, the state legislature, as the governing body, has oversight of services that would otherwise be provided by the organized borough (e.g. education, planning and zoning). (Alaska State Constitution, Article X, Section 3 and 6, and AS 29.03.010.) Much of Alaska's rural regions have not yet formed organized boroughs. In these regions, cities and tribal organizations typically provide community services while education is delivered by the state through Regional Educational Attendance Areas (REAAs). See AS 14.08.021-.051 (Current Alaska Statutes) for a description of the powers and organizational structure of REAAs.
What are the powers and duties of municipalities?
All local governments in Alaska enjoy broad powers. Article X of Alaska's Constitution establishes the framework for local government in Alaska. Article X, Section 1 states:
The purpose of this article is to provide for maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units, and to prevent duplication of tax-levying jurisdictions. A liberal construction shall be given to the powers of local government units. (Emphasis added)
All local governments have certain fundamental duties such as conducting elections and holding regular meetings of the governing bodies. Beyond that, the duties of municipalities in Alaska vary a lot. Duties of cities and boroughs vary depending upon their classification; city duties also vary based on whether they are located inside or outside organized boroughs.
Education - All organized boroughs as well as home rule and first class cities in the unorganized borough must operate municipal school districts. Second class cities in the unorganized borough and cities in organized boroughs are not authorized to do so.
Planning, Platting, and Land Use Regulation - All organized boroughs, along with home rule and first class cities in the unorganized borough must also exercise planning, platting, and land use regulation. Second class cities in the unorganized borough are permitted, but not required, to exercise those powers. Home rule, first class and second class cities in organized boroughs may exercise planning, platting, and land use regulation powers only if the borough has delegated those powers to them.
Tax Collection - Organized boroughs also have the duty to collect municipal property, sales, and use taxes if these taxes are levied within their boundaries.
Beyond these requirements, municipal powers are exercised at the discretion of local governments. Second class cities are not obligated by law to provide any particular service.
General Law Cities and Boroughs Powers and Duties. General law local governments get their powers from laws enacted by the state legislature. The constitutional principle of liberal construction of local government powers is repeated in the laws enacted by the legislature (AS 29.35.400) and expanded upon with the provision that unless otherwise provided by law a municipality may exercise all powers and functions necessary to carry out its duties and responsibilities. (AS 29.35.410.) Essentially, this means that unless an act is specifically prohibited by law, a home rule municipality is probably free to act on the matter.
Numerous court cases have reaffirmed the constitutional principle of liberal construction. See "Local Government in Alaska", pages 6-8.
Differences among General Law Boroughs. A main difference between a first class borough and a second class borough is the authority to assume powers. A first class borough may exercise any power not prohibited by law on a non-areawide basis (i.e., in the area of the borough outside cities) by adopting an ordinance. A second class borough, however, must gain voter approval for the authority to exercise many non-areawide powers.
Differences among General Law Cities. A main difference between a first class city and a second class city is the power to provide education. A first class city must exercise education powers while a second class city may not.
Home Rule Cities and Boroughs Powers and Duties. While general law local governments in Alaska have broad powers, home rule local governments have even broader powers. Article X, Section 11 of Alaska's Constitution states that a home rule borough or city may exercise all legislative powers not prohibited by law or by charter.
Why isn't Alaska divided into counties?
The minutes of the constitutional convention indicate that counties were not used as a form of local government for various reasons. The failure of some local economies to generate enough revenue to support separate counties was an important issue as well as the desire to use a model that would reflect the unique character of Alaska, provide for maximum local input, and avoid a body of county case law already in existence. Instead, Alaska adopted boroughs as a form of regional government. This regionalization was an attempt to avoid having a number of independent, limited-purpose governments with confusing boundaries and inefficient governmental operations.
The delegates to the State of Alaska's Constitutional Convention of 1955-56 wanted to avoid overlapping local government jurisdictions. Of particular concern was preventing the duplication of local government authorities with the power to tax. A guiding principle of the constitutional convention was that they did not want to force a particular form of government on any community or region of the state.
The constitutional framers attempted to create a system of local government that would be flexible enough to meet the desire for local control as well as the need to realize economies of scale through regional organization. A major factor they considered was the diversity of economies and infrastructure. When Alaskans were considering statehood, many communities relied almost exclusively on a subsistence lifestyle. Entire regions of the state were without basic services or substantial cash economies while other parts of the state were developing resource industries that promised a robust economy.
Considering these differences, the constitution did not mandate the creation of incorporated local governments throughout the state, but did provide that the entire state be divided into boroughs based on, in part, natural geographic boundaries, economic viability, and common interests.
Constitution of the State of Alaska - Article X
Regulations (Alaska Administrative Code)