JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill to increase village public safety officers' pay and benefits -- as well as their duties -- was approved by the Senate on Monday.
Aimed at reducing an annual turnover rate that averages 40 percent, Senate Bill 145 would make officers eligible for the state's retirement system and boost pay by just more than 11 percent. In exchange, officers will take on probation and parole responsibilities in their communities on top of their five current duties, which include law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, water safety and emergency medical services.
Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, and 15 co-sponsors put their names on the bill.
''It's the top priority of mine,'' Halford said. ''I believe it will do more good for less money for more people in greater need than many of the other things we do.''
Starting pay for a VPSO starts at $11 to $15 per hour, depending on the region, said Royce Weller, special assistant to the commissioner of Public Safety. The bill, carrying an initial price tag of $1.3 million, will add $5,000 to $6,000 annually to officers' pay, bringing it up to about $35,000 for a job that requires being on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week, Halford said.
The bill expands to the entire state a successful two-year pilot project tried out in the Bristol Bay Native Association with 11 officers. Besides benefiting officers, the bill would allow rural residents on parole or probation to return to their home communities rather than stay in urban areas under the jurisdiction of Department of Corrections officers.
According to a University of Alaska Anchorage study last year, a typical officer stays with the program less than two years, and the cost to the state is not cheap. The state estimates it spends $6,200 to hire, train and equip each new VPSO. The time between a resignation and the hiring of a replacement is more than four months.
The study asked 113 out of a possible 184 current and former VPSOs about working conditions. Sixty percent said they supplemented their incomes, including 20 percent who used food stamps and 48 percent who worked at extra job.
The study determined that 80 percent of the officers believed they were lucky not to have been injured during some part of their jobs. Thirty-seven percent had been injured making an arrest and almost 40 percent had responded to calls in which gunshots were fired.
Sen. Georgianna Lincoln, D-Rampart, said VPSOs earn what janitors make in rural communities.
''To me it is such an important, huge step,'' Lincoln said of the salary and benefits boost.
''Their life is on the line sometimes,'' Lincoln said. ''They're right there answering domestic violence calls, and people who are armed, and people who are under the influence.''
Turnover is not the only problem, Lincoln said. As of last August, the state had 71 VPSOs serving 70 villages, but 53 villages had authorized positions that were vacant.
The bill also calls for the hiring of four regional public safety officers who would help train and supervise VPSOs in villages. The new positions are career incentives that VPSOs now do not have, Halford said.
Lincoln and Halford expect the bill to eventually save the state money. More VPSOs will mean fewer trips by Alaska State Troopers to villages, Lincoln said.
Rural residents on parole and probation in cities are subject to alcohol, drugs and predators, Halford said.
''They end up violating their conditions of parole and probation and end up going back to jail,'' he said.
''In my opinion, in the long term, through the successful avoidance of incarceration for probation violations, it will return maybe more than that to the state and certainly more than that in the value of self-respect to the people involved,'' Halford said.
The bill now moves to the House for consideration.
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