JUNEAU (AP) -- Village public safety officers working in rural Alaska are getting a raise.
Gov. Tony Knowles signed a bill Tuesday that boosts pay and benefits for the officers, and calls for them to take on parole and probation supervision in rural areas. Senate Bill 145 creates four new regional public safety officers as well.
Knowles also signed two transportation bills Tuesday. One requires the state Department of Transportation to pay interest on contract disputes it loses. The other authorizes $142.9 million in revenue bonds for the Anchorage and Fairbanks airports, with the bonds to be repaid by air carriers. The transportation bills were sponsored by Sen. John Cowdery, R-Anchorage
Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, sponsored the VPSO bill.
''The VPSOs are those from whom we expect the most and often give the least, and they certainly give us the most bang for the buck in terms of law enforcement in rural Alaska,'' Halford said.
The bill is aimed at reducing an annual turnover rate that averages 40 percent. It makes village officers eligible for the state's retirement system and boosts their pay a bit more than 11 percent.
VPSOs will take on probation and parole supervision in their communities on top of their current duties involving law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, water safety and emergency medical services.
The provision will allow rural residents on parole or probation to return to their home communities, where they have family support and where rehabilitation is more likely to be successful, Knowles said.
The bill calls for hiring four regional public safety officers who would help train and supervise VPSOs in villages. The new positions are intended to provide a potential career ladder for VPSOs.
Knowles had called for 20 new VPSOs and a pay raise of 15 percent.
''We didn't get all that we asked for, but Senate Bill 145 takes a big step in the right direction,'' Knowles said Tuesday. He said he'll try again next year to get further increases.
VPSOs make on average $17 an hour, and their starting pay ranges from $11 to $15 an hour depending on where they work, according to the Department of Public Safety.
The state was sued two years ago by two Alaska Native rights organizations and 10 Native villages, who said the state provided inadequate police protection in rural Alaska. The suit is still in the courts.
Halford said Senate Bill 145 was not a response to the lawsuit, and Knowles said it's not intended as a settlement, although both said they hope the measure helps address some of the underlying concerns behind the legal action.
''The need's been there long before the lawsuit,'' Halford said.
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