Highway Law Enforcement Ordinance
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
Municipal Manager Bill Falsey gave a presentation on AO 2018-16, the proposed Highway Law Enforcement Ordinance, at the Feb. 19 Girdwood Board of Supervisors meeting.
The ordinance was first introduced at the Feb. 13 Anchorage Assembly meeting, and a work session was later held at City Hall. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27.
If enacted, the ordinance would fund patrols of Glenn Highway, Seward Highway in the Anchorage Bowl, and Seward south of McHugh Creek to Ingram Creek at MP 75.
After Alaska State Troopers [AST] ceded Seward Highway to the Municipality, the problem of who is responsible for patrolling has remained unresolved. Funding collected for Anchorage Municipal Police Service Area [AMPSA] can only be used in that area.
Anchorage Police Department has been patrolling the Seward Highway since Oct. 1 due to a $200,000 state grant. That money will run out by March or April, and there is currently no solution to continued patrolling.
Falsey’s short history review gave context to the complex situation leading to the proposed ordinance.
In 1978, the Assembly created a list of area-wide powers such as libraries, sewer service, and managing convention, sports and performing arts centers.
“What’s not on that list,” Falsey asked. “One thing that is not an area-wide function of the Municipality is one of the key functions of government. It is police.”
The withdrawal AST on Oct. 1, 2016, left Girdwood Valley Service Area and Tax District 4 (Rainbow, Indian, Bird Creek, Crow Creek and Portage) without police service and Seward Highway without patrols.
Girdwood taxed itself for police powers by a three-vote margin and hired Whittier Police Department (WPD) on an interim basis in Oct. 2016, while negotiating a three-year contract beginning in 2017.
Turnagain Arm Police Service Area (TAPSA) began after its residents approved the measure in the April, 2017, Municipal election, forming a new service area for Fire Island, Rainbow, Indian Bird Creek, Crow Creek and Portage. TAPSA has $50,000 funding used to pay on a fee-for-service basis when APD responds, but does not cover patrolling Seward Highway.
If passed by the Assembly, AO 2018-16 declares highway enforcement an area-wide power. The proposed ordinance does not create a highway patrol unit but will use current officers with patrols as part of their usual duties.
“The chief practical effect is not to change what happens in town,” Falsey said. “It is to put a new presence of APD on the Seward Highway south of McHugh Creek. The presence equates to, on average, two officers 24/7.”
Falsey said the ordinance will not change the level of taxes levied by Municipality (which would need voter approval), will not create a new service area, will not change the APD budget and will not create new spending power.
“It would say this new, area-wide function is going to cost about $4 million. That’s our best estimate for six officers 24/7, split two to the Glenn, two in town and two south of McHugh Creek based on a standard $70 per hour wage with add-ons for vehicle depreciation and fuel.”
The estimated $4 million needed would not be taken from AMPSA. Instead, residents would pay their share into Highway Law Enforcement budget, which would be funded by property taxes throughout the Municipality.
The proposed ordinance gives Anchorage bowl residents a slight tax deduction for two reasons. Those taxpayers already pay for highway patrolling, but the funds would be directed to the enforcement budget. The proposed ordinance would have two percent of the patrol budget coming from taxpayers south of McHugh Creek, who currently do not pay for highway law enforcement.
Taxpayers south of McHugh Creek would pick up a share of the $4 million highway budget or the remaining two percent of total assessed property values, about $75,000. These taxpayers would see a slight tax increase.
“That is a rough tax increase of about $11.22 per $100,000,” Falsey said.
Falsey also noted the Motor Fuels Tax (MFT) starts in March. The 10-cents per gallon tax is estimated to raise $11 million. Every dollar MFT raises has to offset area-wide taxes that would be otherwise collected. The offset is estimated to reduce taxes $32 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
“The upshot for folks living south of McHugh Creek is the total property tax hit should still be a reduction, but it won’t be as great a reduction as would have occurred had this shift not happened,” Falsey said.
In the Municipality, Girdwood has 1.58 percent of its taxable property value, so its taxpayers would contribute $63,500 to the highway budget. TAPSA has 0.3 percent of assessed property value, which would cost those taxpayers about $11,000.
Falsey said something needs to be done to find a long-term solution to patrolling Seward Highway. He noted that the proposed ordinance was not even an option when policing solutions were being examined starting in 2015.
If the Assembly enacts the ordinance, it is drafted to take place immediately. There is expected to be no gap in Seward Highway coverage, and the state grant would wind down. Municipal budget changes would be required as well.
“This ordinance pretty clearly signals that if we pass this,” Falsey said, “it is going to have to be conforming to first quarter budget revisions and a change to the mill levy, which hasn’t been set for 2018. I think we would be free to start two days after they pass it.”
If the ordinance passes, APD would respond off of the highway in the case of a major emergency. Regular police presence on Seward Highway would likely lead to improved response times over deployment from Huffman when service is needed, Falsey asserted.
APD would not be patrolling Portage Highway, but would respond to calls as part of TAPSA.WPD routinely patrols Portage Highway as a safety measure for Whittier residents.
“There is not going to be anybody [APD] who is routinely patrolling the Portage Highway,” Falsey said.“When we created TAPSA, the proposal was you’re not getting a regular police presence. People are not patrolling. If you call 911, someone will answer the phone, and if it needs a response, we’ll go. That model has worked out.”
Falsey acknowledged that Seward Highway needs regular patrolling, and that there are no easy solutions to fix a problem the Municipality did not create.
“We think we have exhausted all of the plan A options,” Falsey said. “There is no cavalry coming to save us. We’ve got to do this for ourselves, or it’s not going to get done.”