Petersburg assembly waits on state budget, police job unfilled

The Petersburg Borough Assembly voted Feb. 6, 2019 against filling a vacant police position. (Photo by KFSK)

The Petersburg Borough Assembly voted Feb. 6, 2019 against filling a vacant position in the police department. (Photo by KFSK)

Uncertainty about next year’s spending by the state of Alaska is trickling down to local governments. Petersburg’s borough assembly voted on Feb. 6 against filling a vacant position in the police department, at least until a proposed state spending plan is unveiled later this month. Local officials are expecting spending cuts at the state level, which may lead to similar changes locally.

The open job is one of two sergeant’s positions on the local force, normally made up of nine officers. It’s already budgeted for this year, but the borough has waited on hiring anyone for that job. Assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter wanted to hold off on longer on that hire.

“I’m definitely not opposed to filling every position of the police department but I really would hate to hire somebody now and then later on see what the state budget is going to be and then have to then let that person go, or let somebody go,” Wohlhueter said.

New governor Michael Dunleavy is expected to release his budget proposal for next year on February 13. The governor campaigned on the promise of a balanced budget, which could mean a state spending reduction of 30 percent in one year, or more than one and a half billion dollars. That could mean reductions or elimination of revenue sharing, jail funding and other payments to municipalities, or shifting costs to local governments.

Vacancies in the department mean longer hours for the rest of the force, and that increases overtime pay. Police chief James Kerr told the assembly that overtime in 2013 was nearly $84,000 with a fully staffed department. It was right around that the next two years as well. The department’s been short staffed since 2016, and that year overtime pay increased to nearly $94,000. That number went up to over $132,000 dollars. Last year the department paid out more than $155,000, nearly double the budgeted amount. More than halfway through this fiscal year, that overtime figure is over $83,000.

“Those years we were over, we had to make cuts from within our department,” Kerr told the assembly. “That’s not sending anyone to training so we’re getting behind on training and not replacing certain items within. So we had to make cuts within so we would come in under our budget overall.”

Kerr took over as chief last year.

The overtime pay was an issue for assembly member Jeff Meucci.

“I mean that’s a ton of money that we’re spending on overtime because we don’t have enough, as far as I can tell, enough people to fill all the spots,” Meucci said. “And if we’re not going to fill this position I think the police department needs to figure out what they’re going to do, if they’re going to hire a police officer, or they’re just going to try and put their schedule together based on not 24/7 police protection.”

Phil Hofstetter, CEO of the Petersburg Medical Center has lobbied the borough to keep round the clock police coverage in the community. In a letter to the borough, Hofstetter noted recent incidents of violent patients that have required nursing staff to call 911 for police help. He writes after hours, the hospital has minimal nursing staff caring for long-term care residents, acute care beds and the emergency room.

Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht noted that filling the vacancy in the police department was a larger question than just one job.

“So if you don’t replace the position long-term, we have to change how we operate in the police department, which means whether it’s 24 hour coverage or fewer people on at certain times or certain things we just stop doing,” Giesbrecht explained. “That’s the big question.”

Assembly members were not ready to keep the status quo yet with state budget cuts coming.

Assembly member Bob Lynn didn’t expect the state budget would be resolved before the borough had finished its review of a local spending plan for next year. But he wanted to wait for more information.

“My concern is, if we have to cut, cutting $200,000 is one thing, cutting half a million dollars is another one,” Lynn said. “And that requires my thinking to look at a whole bunch of different things we have to do, including changing business.”

The vote was 5-2 against filling the position, with Jeigh Stanton Gregor and Jeff Meucci voting for it.

In other possible budget decisions, the assembly did vote unanimously to direct the borough manager to look into hiring a consultant for improving the bottom line at Mountain View Manor’s assisted living facility. Even with a waiting list and full occupancy, that facility had an estimated operating loss of nearly $138,000 last year. That vote doesn’t yet approve any spending for that consultant. Before that happens, it will come back before the assembly at a later date.

And the assembly once again voted to remove budget items from their meeting agenda. Assembly member Meucci sought to have a discussion on adding a position in the fire department, cutting grants to community service organizations, merit raises for borough department heads and eliminating snow removal outside of the old city limits.

“We all know that there are going to be cuts coming, and I’ve said this before, but I think there should be a time when we’re all here to at least let the community know what some of our thoughts are,” Meucci said.

He and Stanton Gregor were the only votes to keep those discussion items on the agenda and they were removed for the second meeting in a row.

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