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Following trooper loss, Haines looks at expanding police service

The Haines Police service area does not include residents who live along the Haines Highway. (Photo by Abbey Collins/KHNS)
The Haines Police service area does not include residents who live along the Haines Highway. (Photo by Abbey Collins/KHNS)

Haines’ loss of state trooper may trigger a major change to the way local police service is funded and structured. The trooper loss might result in an expansion of Haines police jurisdiction – from just the townsite to borough-wide.

“I want to compel you that not doing something is not the correct answer,” said Haines Police Chief Heath Scott at a Tuesday Assembly committee meeting.

Haines’ Alaska State Trooper post was moved to Bethel earlier this year. Scott and his three officers have picked up the slack in the absence of that trooper.

For example, the most recent police blotter shows an officer responding to a reckless driving report out Lutak Road.

“We’re currently not funded to go out the road,” Scott said. “But when people call 911, regardless of what people feel in here or think in here, we have a duty to respond.”

Right now, Haines has two different income pools and expenses that are based on geography.

One is the townsite service area fund, the other is areawide.

People pay different amounts of property and sales tax in the townsite than they do in the outer parts of the borough. And they get different levels of government services.

The police department is one of three things paid for by the townsite fund. But police aren’t staying in the townsite boundaries. With the trooper absence, they’re going throughout the borough.

“I feel that when the police leave the townsite in order to take care of an emergency outside their jurisdiction, that the people of the townsite are paying for that cost,” said Assembly member Stephanie Scott. “And it’s not fair.”

So, the idea is to take police service out of the townsite box, and make it an areawide service.

Borough staff have proposed a new “community safety” service area, which encompasses police, emergency medical response and related dispatch time.

The question then becomes how to pay for it.

Property and sales tax are two obvious sources. Other possibilities have sparked a backlash.

“We would just like to leave our medical service tax dollars out of the calculation,” Darwin Feakes said. “Leave us as we are for something that works.”

Feakes was one of several Haines Volunteer Fire Department members who spoke out.

They’re worried about combining emergency medical response in the new service area.

The medical service fund is paid for through a half-percent dedicated sales tax. The EMS and fire crew doesn’t want this new “community safety” service area dipping into that money.

The fire department also is opposed to the idea of an ambulance fee as a funding source.

“We’re gonna end up with some tragedies that come out of that because people are gonna go, ‘I can’t afford $500 for an ambulance call,’” Feakes said.

Borough manager Debra Schnabel said the ambulance fee is just an idea at this point. She said the new service area could be created and funded in a way that protects EMS money.

The firefighters weren’t the only ones with objections.

“The sky is not falling,” said Brenda Josephson, who owns property in the Chilkat Lake area. “It’s government bureaucracy growing for the benefit of government bureaucracy, and not for the benefit of the people.”

If the Assembly did want to move forward with establishment of a new community safety service area, it would require a vote of the people.

That’s another concern from out of townsite residents. They’re worried their voice would be outweighed by the townsite voters.

“I don’t think you should ever have an areawide vote where the majority of people can overrun the vote of a minority group,” Mosquito Lake resident Paul Rogers said.

So what happens next?

The first question is whether the Assembly will pursue expanding police jurisdiction borough-wide with a new service area.

The second question is how that should be funded.

And the third is whether it should go to a public vote this October.

Borough clerk Julie Cozzi urged the Assembly not to rush the question to the October ballot.

The Assembly may provide some answers to these questions at a meeting Aug. 8.

KHNS - Haines

KHNS is our partner station in Haines. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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