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Budget cuts could mean fewer troopers

Soldotna lieutenant: Coverage already stretched over peninsula

Posted: Tuesday, March 19, 2002

Roughly 32,000 residents of the Kenai Peninsula living outside city limits go to sleep each night relying on the Alaska State Troopers for protection. But the man charged with ensuring their safety says he has barely half the troopers he needs to do the job. Worse, he soon may lose still more of his force.

Some $1.67 million in cuts to the Alaska Department of Public Safety budget approved by the Alaska House Finance Committee last week could result in the elimination of up to 23 trooper positions statewide.

Some of those may well be pulled from E Detachment on the Kenai Peninsula, the area of responsibility for Lt. Tom Bowman who commands 31 troopers spread out across the entire peninsula from Homer to Girdwood -- one for every 1,048 citizens living beyond city limits.

"I currently have half the troopers I need to service the public," Bowman said Monday. "There are times I have one car on duty between Cooper Landing, Ninilchik and the Captain Cook Campground."

It is still too early to tell if budget cuts will actually result in the loss of trooper positions on the peninsula, but it is probable.

Public safety department administrators will have to look to areas that also have other police agencies -- the major metropolitan areas such as Fairbanks, Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, as well as the cities of the Kenai Peninsula Borough -- when they start axing positions to meet budget restrictions, said Karen Morgan, director of administrative services for the public safety department.

"The department is seriously looking at some areas now," Morgan said. "We will certainly try to do it as equitably as possible. Our primary concern is support in areas that don't otherwise have support."

Morgan said she assumes the public safety detachment on the peninsula could be targeted for cuts should it come to that. Today there are 19 troopers, six Fish and Wildlife officers and two court service officers assigned to the Soldotna post. Four troopers, two Fish and Wildlife officers and one court service officer work out of Homer. Seward has three troopers and one Fish and Wildlife officer, while four troopers work out of Girdwood and another works out of Cooper Landing.

Statewide, Alaska currently has 248 troopers, including recruits now in the Alaska Public Safety Academy and four regional public safety officers. There are just 91 Fish and Wildlife officers statewide.

"It just dumbfounds me," said Bowman, a 27-year veteran of the force. "I get correspondence from legislators regarding citizens complaints about our slow response or the time it takes to get a report to the district attorney. Legislators seem quick to criticize us, but they are very slow to provide us with the personnel to do the job."

A $1.67 million cut would have effects beyond the trooper ranks. Some 19 seasonal aide positions in the Division of Fish and Wildlife Protection and four new regional public safety officers could be gone, according to Morgan's analysis.

There also would be less money for fuel, fire prevention programs and oil facility safety monitoring, fewer village public safety officers and support staff, and no funding for Gov. Tony Knowles' Avalanche Warning System Initiative, Morgan said.

The proposed spending plan also would cut funding for child-abuse investigators, slow down the pace of training at the training academy, eliminate three state prosecutors and deny funding for such things as enforcing the .08 blood-alcohol drunk driving law, according to Morgan.

While the operating budget proposed by the House Finance Committee specifically states it is meeting labor contract requirements for cost-of-living increases scheduled for later this year, the $1.67 million "miscellaneous reduction" they OK'd is equivalent to those salary increases.

Essentially, that's telling the department to "cover the pay increases out of program budgets," Morgan said.

At least some of the proposed cuts will survive into the final budget bill, Morgan predicted. The House Finance Committee appears committed to reductions in spending before finding new revenue streams, she said.

"From my perspective, the legislators I've talked to say there needs to be a balance between taxes and spending," she said. "Listening to the hearing Saturday, the legislators believe we have not reached that balance.

"I don't think at this point that some of these cuts will be restored," she said. "Some of them we are going to have to deal with."

The spending bill made it to the floor of the House on Monday where Democrats offered no amendments. Minority Leader Rep. Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchor-age, said the finance committee bill is so bad it's beyond repair. There will be other opportunities to affect changes before final adoption, he said.

As for the cuts to public safety, Berkowitz said forcing a reduction in personnel was a dangerous policy.

"This is not just compromising public safety, but officer safety at this point," he said. "There's no need to do that."

House Majority Leader Rep. Brian Porter said the Republican Caucus had met its goal of presenting a hold-the-line budget. He said unavoidable increases in spending would mean reductions have to be made in other areas.

He said it was understandable that didn't make some people happy.



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