Haines has been without a blue-shirt Alaska State Trooper for more than six months. The trooper used to provide protection for areas of the borough outside the townsite, including the Haines Highway. Now, the assembly has a solution in sight to cover the gap left behind by the trooper, but voters will have the final say.
The idea is to create a new police service area. Right now, the Haines Police Department is only meant to serve the townsite. It’s where the most people live, but it’s just a small fraction of the borough.
Borough manager Debra Schnabel said policing outside the townsite should be a concern for all residents, no matter where they live in the Chilkat Valley.
“We all live as a community and your behavior and the policing doesn’t stop at a border,” Schnabel said. “For many people who live in the townsite service area to cross a boundary and no longer be provided the police service seems like an odd way to live. You either feel that you’re covered or not. And you shouldn’t be afraid to cross a border because you won’t be covered by the police.”
Schnabel presented a number of options to provide police service outside the townsite.
The one that she and the assembly liked best was the creation of a new ‘community safety’ service area. It would essentially expand Haines PD protection to the entire borough, except Excursion Inlet.
Creating a new service area requires voter approval. A question could be placed on the Oct. 3 election ballot.
Assemblyman Tom Morphet raised an objection he’s voiced repeatedly: this proposal should be coming from the public, not the assembly. He pointed out that there were no outside townsite residents at the meeting asking for a ballot question.
“I appreciate the fact that we’re all one community and we don’t want anyone at Mosquito Lake to be gunned down because the police officer said, ‘no sorry you’re outside the service area,'” Morphet said. “But the political reality is it’s very difficult for us to tell people what they need if they don’t think that they need it.”
In an effort to make the question more palatable to voters, Schnabel suggests not raising taxes to pay for increased police expenses.
It’s uncertain what those expenses would add up to. The borough is hiring for a fifth police officer right now. If the new service area triggered the need for a sixth officer, that would cost at least $120,000.
Schnabel recommends funding the new service area with reallocated sales tax, excise taxes on marijuana and tobacco, and outside grants.
Police Chief Heath Scott supports that approach.
“My biggest concern in this situation would be being faced with an unfunded requirement after a ‘no’ vote,” Scott said.
That’s essentially what Scott is dealing with now. His department isn’t actively patrolling the entire borough, but people outside the townsite do call 911, and the police respond to emergencies.
Some assembly members said the expense should be funded, at least in part, by a property tax hike.
“I’d feel much more comfortable if part of that ballot question included property tax,” said Heather Lende. “It seems that that’s more equitable.”
How to pay for the community safety service area is likely to be a topic of discussion as the assembly moves the ballot question forward. The first hearing on the ordinance is set for Tuesday, July 11.
Even as the assembly works on the ballot question, the borough plans to advocate for reinstatement of the Haines trooper post. The troopers left Haines because of budget cuts and its relatively low crime rate.
The assembly voted to contact other Alaska communities that have been abandoned by the troopers and work together to lobby the state legislature.