Voters will get say on police

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

Nikiski area voters will get to decide in October whether the community needs better law enforcement than it currently gets relying on an overstretched Alaska State Trooper force.

Tuesday, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted a controversial ordinance that would place a proposition on the Oct. 5 municipal election ballot asking residents of the proposed Nikiski Law Enforcement Service Area to authorize the borough to exercise police powers within the service area.

If voters say yes, it would be the first time the borough has assumed such powers.

The service area would have the same boundaries as the Nikiski Fire Service Area, including territory on the west side of Cook Inlet.

Like the fire service area, those boundaries put oil industry properties within the service area's taxing zone.

If approved, Ordinance 2004-10 provides for establishing a five-member elected board, which would have the power to provide and determine the scope and level of law enforcement services.

The board could consider and pursue contracting for services with other existing police agencies, such as the Alaska State Troopers, or create an entirely new police department.

Among the issues the assembly wrestled with Tuesday was whether an elected chief of police would be likely to have the same qualifications as a slate of applicants for an appointed position who would be required to hold state law enforcement certificates. After debate, however, provisions for an elected chief, if that were to be the decision of the board, were left intact.

The assembly also debated a proposed provision that would have allowed the mayor to remove an elected or appointed chief only upon recommendation of the service area board. Assembly member Gary Superman of Nikiski said that provision was put there to give the service area board more flexibility. However, the provision would have made the new service area different from other service areas in which the mayor has the ultimate authority to remove a director.

After further debate, a line was added allowing the board to make independent recommendations to the mayor regarding a suspension or discharge of the chief law enforcement officer, while affirming that the mayor was the final authority on whether to remove a chief.

The ordinance does not make reference to a mill rate for the new service area. Borough Clerk Linda Murphy said information provided to voters with the proposition would include an anticipated mill rate, though the final authority for setting the mill levy lies with the assembly and could be different.

The 2004 taxable value of property within the proposed service area is $1.36 billion. A tax of 1 mill would generate $1.36 million a year. However, the actual assessed values and tax revenue generated would be based on 2005 certified assessed values, Mayor Dale Bagley said in a report to the assembly.

Meanwhile, assembly members learned Tuesday that the assessed values of oil industry holdings is falling and that could have an impact on the revenue stream of the new service area as well as the borough as a whole.

Testimony at the final public hearing on Ordinance 2004-10 was split. Several Nikiski residents rose to support creation of the new service area.

Phil Nash of Nikiski pointed to the provision giving the board the power to determine the scope and level of services after considering the desires of the community through the board meeting process. He also noted that the board's powers ultimately were dependent on assembly approval and appropriation of funds.

"That really is the nuts an bolts of this," Nash said. "It is pro-active."

He noted an increase in the frequency and severity of burglaries and other crimes against people and property in the community, and that the nearest trooper station was in Soldotna.

Another Nikiski resident, Sherry Heath, said some people in the area have considered trying to enforce the law themselves when faced with crime. She asked the assembly to put the issue on the ballot "so that we don't have vigilante, do-it-yourself people taking the law into their own hands."

Vicki Pate of Nikiski said it would be proper to put the issue on the ballot. However, she took issue with those saying Nikiski is ready to pay for its own police.

"There are several things we need to think about before we put on another property tax," she said. Pate noted the proposed geographical size of the service area, which would put half of the territory on the other side of Cook Inlet "so that the oil platforms can be included in the assessed value." She called it a bad idea to create such a large area to police.

She also noted that police don't prevent crime, but rather investigate it after it happens.

"Consequently, a Neighborhood Watch Program would probably be far more effective," she said.

"It is true that police cannot act on something prior to a crime," said Nikiski resident Wayne Floyd. "But it is also a proven fact that the presence of police in an area is a deterrent to crime because of the perceived quick response."

Brian Heath of Nikiski spoke in favor, noting the community had a reputation as a sometimes dangerous place.

"We don't want that (reputation)," he said.

Heath credited troopers with doing a fine job, but noted how thin the force is. A local police force would increase coverage in the area and free up troopers to police the highways, he said.

Superman noted community law enforcement has been on the minds of residents for some time. A string of burglaries in January served to focus community attention. The crime ring eventually was busted, but prior to that, Superman said, "some citizens attempted reacquisition of their property on their own." That, he added, was a dangerous situation.

Many unincorporated areas are growing in population faster than the cities, Superman said.

"Unfortunately, because of the lack of visible authority, these areas have become fertile ground for crime," he said.

Later, Superman said he has no crystal ball regarding such things as the cost of running a police force in Nikiski.

"Along those lines, it is my sense of the community that there is a growing pro-active element out there. These are people who want to see the quality of life in their community bettered. This is not fluff of government. This is a primary service of government. We are not asking to go overboard here. We are asking to look to those necessary and crucial quality of life elements that we are missing at least some of us in the community feel are missing."

The assembly voted 8-1 for the ordinance. Chris Moss of Homer voted no, expressing concern over the provision for an elected chief. He supported hiring a chief from a slate of clearly qualified applicants.

Amendments to the ordinance introduced by Superman and adopted by the assembly would require that a chief have either an intermediate or an advanced certificate from the Alaska Police Standards Council.

In other business, the assembly:

Voted down Ordinance 2004-13, which would have raised the sales tax cap on purchases from $500 to $1,000. The vote was close, with five of nine voting against the change. Superman called for reconsideration at the next meeting.

Adopted Ordinance 2004-14, increasing the authorized conditional-use permit term from two years to six years.

Adopted Ordinance 2004-16, making revisions in the right-of-way permit review and appeal procedures.

Postponed action on Ordinance 2004-19, the fiscal year 2005 borough budget, until a special meeting June 14. Also postponed was Resolution 2004-055, which will set the mill levy for real and personal property for the borough and service area under the 2005 budget.

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