Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Borough-wide police protection, a guide

 

August 3, 2017

The proposed community safety service area would encompass all land in the borough north of Sullivan Island. The Haines Borough charter limits the establishment and operation of a police department to within a service area. Borough charter map.

At the Haines Borough Assembly's direction, borough staff have drafted an ordinance that creates and funds a borough wide "community safety service area." The issue could go before the voters this October, pending assembly approval of the measure.

The ordinance comes after a handful of meetings centered around a vacant Alaska State Trooper position the state didn't fill in January. Before the vacancy, Haines Police responded when the trooper requested assistance. Now, police respond outside the townsite and conduct investigations when a 911 call comes into dispatch.

The response costs money Haines Borough police chief Heath Scott says his department isn't funded or staffed for. The borough's budget funds police to operate only within the city limits, commonly referred to as the "townsite." However, Scott has said on multiple occaisions he and his officers feel an ethical duty to respond to calls.

The ordinance has drawn criticism from local medical and fire volunteers whose budget will be folded into the expanded service area, which includes roughly all borough land north of Sullivan Island.

A common sentiment among residents who live outside the townsite is that they want the police to respond only to emergency 911 calls. They have said they don't want active patrols and that they already pay enough taxes, and don't receive comparable services.

During a Tuesday meeting to explain the ordinance, Haines Borough manager Debra Schnabel said she'd like the community to stop using "emergency service" as a concept.

"What is an emergency to one person may not be the emergency to the person who's on the phone," Schnabel said.

Police service provided in the community safety service area is listed as "community-based police services and education." No definition of what those services include are detailed in the ordinance.

Mosquito Lake resident Paul Rogers, a former Michigan police officer and county-wide 911 dispatch director, said "Emergency responses can be defined and triaged by a competent 911 system.

"I'm not making a judgement on the current 911 system, I'm saying I think that they can because I've seen it done," Rogers said.

Rogers, along with many other residents, have attended meetings about this complex issue. What follows is a breakdown of what's happened and what's next.

How the government funds police service

Around 70 percent of the Haines Borough population lives inside the townsite, according to borough data. Three government services, animal control, public works and police, are provided for in that area and only in that area. The total cost of those services amounts to around $1.7 million, roughly two thirds of which goes toward police and dispatch.

A small portion of property tax and sales tax levied inside the townsite along with funds the state provides for the jail, pay for the bulk of those three services.

"What we're talking about doing is removing police and the associated dispatch from the townsite service area," Haines Borough finance director Jila Stuart said in the meeting. "We move it out to its own fund or to a shared fund with something else."

Borough staff has proposed combining police and dispatch with what's known as the "medical service area." In contrast to police services, ambulance service is provided free of charge to all borough residents and is funded by a voter approved half a percent sales tax.

Schnabel estimates, if borough-wide policing is adopted, in one to two years the borough would have to hire a sixth officer. By that time, Schnabel estimated that would cost around $120,000 in additional funding. Those costs rise in future fiscal years to about $140,000 in fiscal year 2021 and $137,000 by fiscal year 2022.

Borough staff have come up with four funding options to pay for expanded police service.

One option would, in part, reallocate sales tax to fund police and draw money from tourism and economic development funds. Other options include some combination of charging ambulance fees, shifting or adding portions of sales tax, increasing and decreasing property taxes in different areas, instituting tobacco, alcohol or marijuana taxes and using money from other borough funds.

Assembly member Stephanie Scott said she's motivated to allow the ordinance to go to a vote because people living inside the townsite are paying for police response to residents living out the road.

"I feel that when the police leave the townsite in order to take care of an emergency outside of their jurisdiction that the people of the townsite are paying for that cost and it's not fair," Stephanie Scott said.

Residents who live out the road and shop in town pay sales tax, a portion of which funds police.

The assembly increased property taxes this year in the townsite, in part, to help pay for the hiring of a fifth police officer.

An additional funding complication exists because of a contradiction in Haines Borough Charter and Haines Borough Code. Charter states services can be funded from a variety of revenue streams. Borough code says police can only be funded with property tax revenue.

The borough is currently violating its code because it pays for a portion of police service with sales tax.

The assembly last week advanced a separate ordinance that would change code to allow the assembly to "levy taxes by ordinance, make assessments, receive state funds, and otherwise generate income to pay the costs of services provided."

Voters must still approve sales tax ordinances.

How ambulance and fire volunteers have responded

Haines ambulance volunteers are largely against folding a new police service area into the medical service area. They don't want to charge for ambulance service, as proposed in the four community safety service area funding options. Others fear the police budget will absorb their funding.

"My understanding that the half percent medical service area tax was voted in place and part of that vote was to not charge for ambulance costs," ambulance captain Al Badgley said. "Currently the half percent sales tax covers Haines volunteer fire department EMS costs so if we are billing for EMS services we are going to bill for something that is not directly benefiting the Haines Volunteer Fire Department."

The medical services fund draws more revenue into borough coffers than the ambulance department needs, Schnabel said. Schnabel said the half percent sales tax revenues originally funded not only ambulance and dispatch but also helped fund Lynn Canal Counseling services and a nonprofit community health clinic that existed for about two years.

"I think there's concern that if we adopt the ordinance as it stands right now that money for ambulance and dispatch will not be preserved, but I think that there are ways we can address those issues through continuing to work on the substitute ordinance that we've presented," Schnabel said.

Scott Bradford, former fire chief and volunteer fireman, said that extra tax revenue should be saved for ambulance and equipment costs.

"That surplus of the medical service area fund that we give away sometimes...we're going to need that money the next time we buy a new ambulance.

A new ambulance today with no equipment on it is $170,000. We will need all of that medical service area fund at some point down the road."

What local police have said

Chief Scott has described police response out the road as an "unfunded requirement."

"We are currently not funded to go out the road but when people call 911 regardless of what people feel in here or think in here we have a duty to respond," Scott said. "I'll do that if you give me $100,000 or $0. I'll do it if you tell me not to do it."

Scott said if increased funding for police isn't approved, then those making that decision are doing it "on the backs of people," and turnover in the department will continue.

"The budget that we're currently working under is inadequate," Scott said. "Our officers know it's inadequate."

Brenda Josephson is against an expanded police service area. She disputed comments Schnabel and assembly member Ron Jackson made during Tuesday's meeting regarding the lack of state enforcement.

"The state troopers have maintained jurisdiction," Josephson said. "They still respond to emergencies. They've reduced their staff from two down to one because we are a low crime arera."

"It's inaccurate to say we do not have police coverage, that we do not have emergency services."

Local state wildlife trooper Trent Chwialkowski responds to 911 calls and backs up local police when he can.

"We have a rapport with each other, we work together, we share information," Chwialkowski said in a separate interview earlier this year. "We're on the same page here. I think the expectation is I'd be backing them up if they needed my help and certainly the same thing if I needed them they'd be responding with me to a call as well."

The state's position

Governor Bill Walker said the main reason why the trooper position in Haines isn't filled is because the State of Alaska can't find the troopers needed to fill the roughly 25 open positions. He said the state doesn't want to shift police jurisdiction on municipalities in the long-run.

"It's not a matter of necessarily shifting it onto local municipalities. We just don't have the troopers is the problem," Walker said. "Some areas that require a lot of law enforcement activity get the attention. I know that's not the long-term solution."

Walker's statement contradicts an offer in June from the Alaska Department of Public Safety to pay $25,000 to the borough if it agreed to accept responsibility for borough-wide policing.

In a letter last March to the Haines Borough, former Alaska State Trooper Colonel James Cockrell wrote, "It's AST's position that the Haines Police Department will be the primary law enforcement agency within the Haines Borough boundaries..."

The Chilkat Valley News sent multiple questions to Alaska State Troopers regarding police responsibility and its response procedure. The questions went unanswered.

The potential question for the voters

When municipalities expand a service area it requires a majority vote of the people who live inside and outside those areas. The proposed ordinance creates a new service area while leaving the townsite service area intact. Votes inside and outside all get counted together.

"We can't just expand the townsite," Schnabel said."In expanding the townsite...we would be expanding public works and animal control and I realize animal control seems like a small thing until you're chasing an animal down 15 mile."

Rogers expressed a concern echoed by others at the meeting that the community safety service area would affect residents outside the current townsite who are a minority of the voting bloc.

"I think it should only be done if the citizens living in those areas vote to have it done," Rogers said."I don't think you should ever have an area wide, borough wide vote where the majority of people can overrun the vote of a minority group, wherever they may be."

If residents living in Mud Bay, Lutak and out Haines Highway wanted police protection, they could vote to create a service area and fund it themselves. The assembly isn't considering such a ballot proposition.

Brenda Josephson also questioned the need for expanded police presence.

"The sky is not falling," Josephson said. "I want you to really consider and speak to the people who this is supposed to be for. The people are not asking for this. The only people asking for this is the government."

Scott has said in the past that every time he receives a call from outside the townsite, he sees that as people asking for police service.

Haines Borough Clerk Julie Cozzi advised the assembly to take time to draft a good question, or series of questions, educate the public and consider a special election if the issue couldn't be resolved in time for the October 3 regular election.

The assembly must approve an ordinance by the third week of August to get it on the October ballot.

The next public hearing on the ordinance is scheduled for August 8.

 
 

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