At a public safety commission meeting this month, Haines Police Chief Heath Scott presented, in his words, a dilemma: the police department is not adequately staffed. Overtime and standby hours have helped put the department about $30,000 over budget for the first half of the current fiscal year.
Chief Scott says the police department’s budget was not the right size to begin with. For the past six months, the department has been between $2,000 and $8,000 over budget.
“One of the problems when you look at this budget that Haines has experienced is a high rate of turnover, we haven’t held four officers on our rolls for an extended period of time,” Scott said. “It’s very hard to budget when you don’t see that.”
Scott has been on the job about six months. The three officers are also fairly new. Chris Brown has been in Haines about a year, Brayton Long has been on the force for a little over a year, and Sgt. Josh Dryden for close to three years.
Interim Borough Manager Brad Ryan responded to the public safety commission’s questions about why the police are significantly over budget.
“I think the short answer is it’s overtime and standby time,” Ryan said. “The longer answer is, I asked the question the other day in a staff meeting — when is the last time we carried four officers? And nobody could really come up with when we carried four officers for a long time.”
At a finance committee meeting the following day, Assembly member Margaret Friedenauer asked why the police budget issues weren’t brought to the assembly’s attention sooner. Scott said he talked to former manager Bill Seward about it, but Scott thought the over-spending might die down.
“It was understood at the management level what was happening,” Scott said. “We thought things would settle down into November and December and they did not settle down.”
Assemblyman Ron Jackson, who is on the finance committee, said it seems that creating the budget at a time when the police department was in flux led to the current imbalance.
The finance committee decided to recommend the assembly approve a $60,000 budget amendment. That would cover the current $30,000 imbalance and the next six months, if the overspending trend continues.
But the budget amendment, if it’s passed, doesn’t take care of the bigger issue: the police department is stretched too thin, according to Scott.
He has been thinking about alternative staffing plans, which he presented to the public safety commission. One option is to increase the number of standby hours budgeted. Or, the borough could hire another officer.
Scott says in the current staffing set up, there is little overlap between officers. He says less overlap means less safety, for both the officers and the community.
“It’s always easier when you’ve got a second guy,” Scott said. “The other thing that’s bad is fighting at night with no light against three guys. Getting stabbed, when you’re by yourself. It stinks…and I don’t like telling those stories. I hope you know we’re asking for what we need, not what we want.”
The officers and their family members rallied behind Scott at both the finance and public safety meetings. Kit Brown said she worries about her husband, Officer Chris Brown’s safety.
“This summer when we had Beer Fest and bike races and that all that stuff and we were down officers, it was hell on earth,” Brown said. “To try to take care of our children, make sure that he was taken care of mentally, that he got his rest. It’s scary ‘cause you’re worried, are they going to be where they’re supposed to be? Is there anybody that’s got his back?”
Public safety commission chair Jim Stanford said he wants to find a way to give the Haines police better work-life balance.
“I think we as a community need to take a long look at keeping our officers that we have, making them feel safe and also, when they’re off, I’d like them to be off,” Stanford said.
The police are also now filling in the gap left by Haines’ vacant trooper post. Alaska State Troopers may eliminate the position permanently depending on budget cuts. At a meeting Monday, the public safety commission will talk more about out-of-townsite law enforcement and police staffing limitations.