New Girdwood Policing Contract with Whittier Moves Forward
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
The Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), a subcommittee of Girdwood Board of Supervisors (GBOS), unanimously recommended to pursue another contract with the City of Whittier for policing beginning Jan. 1, 2020, at the conclusion of their current contract.
Unlike the full house meetings in 2015-2016 that led to Whittier’s three-year policing contract, only two members of the public and the Gazette attended the April 4th joint PSAC/GBOS meeting to discuss policing options. PSAC is Co-chairs Mandy Hawes and Ken Waugh, Guy Wade, Mike Opalka. GBOS is Co-chairs Jerry Fox and Robert Snitzer, Eryn Boone, Mike Edgington and Christina Hendrickson, whose absence was excused.
Also present were Kyle Kelley, Municipal Liaison to Girdwood, and Margaret Tyler, who is Girdwood’s Administrative Officer, GBOS Secretary, Parks & Recreation and 2018’s Municipal Employee of the Year. Representing Whittier was Interim Director of Public Safety Andre Achee (WPD), while Anchorage Police Department (APD) did not send a representative. In response to a Gazette inquiry, APD issued a statement that appears later in this article.
PSAC began the meeting by presenting a document with data from other similarly populated Alaska communities on the road system and their yearly policing costs. Then four options were reviewed: A WPD contract extension, an APD contract, Girdwood forming its own police department and annexation into Anchorage Metropolitan Police Service Area.
PSAC recommended the WPD contract extension, estimated at $675,000 the first year with an option to extend for another two years. On the plus side, WPD has had a good level of service with the current contract, the shared cost between Whittier and Girdwood means affordable service for both and the department responds to community feedback.
An extension of WPD contract would be $675,000 per year to renew. An APD contract estimate is between $675,000 to the mill cap rate, which is 6.00 mill to provide service for police, fire, roads, parks and cemetery. Girdwood would be added to the Seward Highway patrol rotation but with limited activity. Major crime investigations and similar technical expertise would be available as needed and might lead to more local influence through PSAC and GBOS. The challenge is convincing the Anchorage Assembly to accept a reduced cost for a similar level of service in other parts of Anchorage. If APD is not patrolling the Seward HWY, call response times may be longer.
The option of Girdwood forming its own police department faced a steep financial hurdle with an estimated cost just under $1.5 million. While local control would determine the service level, the start up cost, the liability cost and a probable need to increase the mill rate cap and cut other services presents large hurdles.
The least likely option is annexation into Anchorage Metropolitan Police Service Area (AMPSA) since it would require both Anchorage and Girdwood voters to approve joining. Girdwood taxpayers would have to pay at least an additional 2.21 mills per year, which is what Anchorage residents pay, and it would double the current cost of WPD’s services. The primary benefit would be hiring a large, stable police force that currently patrols Seward Highway.
“The grid that Kyle put together is really a nice summary of what we found,” PSAC Co-chair Hawes said. “We thought of a due diligence approach to the matter to make sure Girdwood is getting the best deal, and that we are recommending the best option as we have the facts today. APD didn’t give us anything. They didn’t come and talk to us a couple of times. They didn’t prepare a formal contract for us to review. We have these details that Whittier has responded to and we can walk through.”
Then Whittier’s Interim Public Safety Director, Andre Achee, was introduced. He served 20 years in a variety of policing positions in Bethel, retired as Chief and has been with WPD for 7 months. PSAC and Achee discussed contract language issues from a previous proposal and seemed fairly close to reaching an agreement since there were no obvious sticking points.
PSAC Co-chair Hawes requested details explaining why the contract rate has risen $675,000 a year from $618,000, stating, “It would be great to have it line itemed out where you see the increases coming. I understand why there might be hesitation to do that, but if it’s in wages or if it’s a flat percentage across all the line items, it would be interesting to know what is driving that change. That’s my analytical brain saying as we’re increasing from $618,000 to $675,000, what is driving that cost to Whittier?”
During the discussion, multiple people spoke about APD’s position on a policing contract that was not in a written proposal.
PSAC Co-chair Waugh explained APD Chief Justin Doll’s position that his department could easily adapt to Girdwood in tandem with Seward HWY patrols. APD now uses a community policing model, with the same officers patrolling areas determined by community council boundaries, which allows them to get to know the communities better. Based on his discussions with APD, Waugh predicts the department will eventually patrol Girdwood.
“The predominant feeling within APD is it may not happen today, but the eventuality is the writing is on the wall,” Waugh said. “This will be a community that will be policed by APD at some point in time. As part of the municipality, they envision that happening.”
Municipal Liaison Kelley said, “They would give us all behind the scenes support for Girdwood, which would be major crime and things like that, detectives, dispatch, but you wouldn’t have regular patrols in Girdwood. You would have response for call, and they would probably work it as part of their APD highway patrol section for service to Girdwood when it is needed. There were no real details. They were not ready to make a contract. I doubt we could get much of a contract out of them.”
PSAC Co-chair Hawes said, “There is no written document. It has been verbal. It is hard to recommend something that has just been verbal and ‘We’d like to’ and ‘We could.’ There is no official response in writing from them. That’s a challenge.”
In response to a Gazette inquiry the day after the meeting, APD Communications Director MJ Thim emailed the following statement.
“APD was enthusiastically involved in the discussion about policing in Girdwood, and our meetings with the PSAC and GBOS were very productive.
“As a result of already patrolling the Seward Highway from Mile 75 into Anchorage, APD could begin policing Girdwood immediately, which we would also be very happy to do. We explained that if Girdwood elected to become part of the police service area, we would simply begin operations in Girdwood the same way we police the rest of the Municipality. We would work with the GBOS, PSAC, and local residents to address neighborhood concerns at the ground level. This is something we are also working to do throughout Anchorage and Eagle River/Chugiak.
“The GBOS and PSAC were very open and honest during the discussions with regards to their community’s desire to keep the tax liability of policing within their existing tax cap, which APD can certainly understand. We were very clear that if Girdwood had a specific service level that they desired combined with a particular operating budget, APD would gladly work with them to achieve their desired results (similar to what we have done with the Turnagain Arm Police Service Area).
Our overall message to GBOS and PSAC was that APD stands ready to provide service to Girdwood specifically tailored to the unique needs of their community.”
In response to a Gazette email about the next steps in a policing contract with Whittier, Municipal Liaison Kelley outlined a process with the caution that it can always change.
“1. GBOS needs to consider and discuss the recommendation from PSAC to move forward with extending the contract. If they vote to accept the recommendation, then it goes to step 2. If they don’t accept the recommendation, then it’s back to considering the other options and working with PSAC.
2. If GBOS approves the recommendation, it starts working with the MOA legal department and Bill Falsey, MOA City Manager, to extend the contract and review the contract changes as proposed and negotiated by PSAC and Whittier.
3. MOA and Whittier work together to finalize a new contract to present to both the MOA Assembly and Whittier City Council.
4. MOA Assembly and Whittier City Council consider and vote on a new contract extension as presented by their respective administrations. The goal is have this process complete by late summer/early fall.
5. The new contract starts Jan. 1, 2020.”