Kotzebue theatens jail closure in face of shrinking state aid

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The city of Kotzebue says state budget cuts are forcing it to close the only jail in far northwest Alaska on July 1.

Department of Corrections officials say Kotzebue is getting enough money to operate the facility.

Caught in between are the Alaska State Troopers, who are scrambling to find a place to lock up prisoners temporarily and to find money for a transportation budget expected to double or triple as they fly more prisoners to Nome.

It's a game of chicken, said Kotzebue city attorney Joe Evans.

''The state figures we'll just cave in'' and continue to subsidize the state facility, as the city has done for years, he said.

''The problem is, the city can't do it and won't do it. They're not our prisoners.''

Kotzebue operates one of 15 community jails. From Barrow to Unalaska to Craig, the communities own and operate the jails using state funds.

The problem, said Kotzebue Police Chief Ed Weibl, is that the state subsidy has not kept pace with community operating costs since the contract system started in the mid-1980s.

When the first shortfalls occurred, they were negligible, he said. As the gap grew, Kotzebue used its municipal revenue sharing money to cover it. By last year, the deficit had grown to $330,000 and the city started negotiating with the state for an increase.

When Gov. Frank Murkowski eliminated the revenue sharing fund program earlier this month, the city decided it was time to close the jail, Weibl said.

''We're going to drain the pipes and shut it down unless the state wants to take it over,'' he said.

The city's main complaint is that community jails receive substantially different amounts per bed, Weibl said. Figures from the Department of Corrections show the North Slope Borough jail in Barrow receives $842,000 for nine beds, or $93,000 per bed, while Kotzebue is paid $589,000 to manage 14 beds, or $42,000 per bed. Dillingham and Kodiak, the other two largest contract jails, are in between.

''If we can do it for $42,000 a bed, Barrow should be able to do it for $42,000 a bed,'' Weibl said.

The state commissioner of Corrections, Marc Antrim, acknowledged that the funding rates of community jails have never been audited. The base rate was established years ago, he said, and the contracts are used differently by each community. Some, like Kotzebue, use theirs to pay for 911 service, while others do not.

''If they would do a cost study and apply our normal staffing rates, there's enough money'' to keep the Kotzebue jail open, Antrim said. The city would have to cut costs, trim services and lean on the Northwest Arctic Borough for financial help, he said.

Though he claims the current budget is adequate, Antrim said his department isn't willing to take over the Kotzebue jail.

''I got a pretty clear message (from Murkowski) that we have to be judicious in expanding our facilities,'' Antrim said.

Kotzebue is not alone in complaining about jail costs, Antrim said. He meets by teleconference every month with the 15 police chiefs who run the community jails. Dillingham has also pondered closing its jail.

''We've talked off and on again about doing the same thing here,'' said finance director and acting city manager Katy Bagierek. As operating costs outstripped the state contract, ''We were going broke,'' she said.

The city began shipping prisoners to Anchorage faster, which reduces costs, Bagierek said. It also negotiated a contract increase. But she expects things to get worse before they improve.

''I think the future is going to be extraordinarily tight until the state gets some new revenues in,'' she said.

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