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Sitka police to add positions after jail windfall

A Sitka police car drives through downtown on Wednesday, June 5, 2013. The police department says it's understaffed and needs more personnel to handle patrol duties in Sitka. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

A Sitka police car drives through downtown on Wednesday, June 5. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

The Sitka Police Department will soon add to its staff. Last night, the Assembly gave a green light to add a patrol officer, a dispatcher and records clerk and a temporary traffic officer.

The boost comes after department brass requested more resources from the Assembly. But it was really made possible by a surprise windfall from the state.

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About 80 percent of the people who go to jail in Sitka are there on state charges. So, every year, the State of Alaska sends the City of Sitka money to run the jail. It’s a contract.

This year the contract landed on the desk of Sitka police Chief Sheldon Schmitt, right on schedule.

“In fact, it looked exactly like the other contracts,” Schmitt said. “And then I paged through to look for the dollar figure, and I was shocked.”

Last year, the city got about $419,000 for the jail. Under this new contract, the state will pay more than $694,000, every year for the next five.

“And I had to make some phone calls to make sure it was for real,” he said.

It was.

The city spends more to operate the jail than it gets from the state, and so for years it’s been plugging that hole with money from its own budget. But now with the state’s extra money, Sitka can take what it previously used to fill the gap, and spend it elsewhere in the department.

Schmitt says they want to spend about a quarter million dollars, which is less than the windfall from the state.

“The money is considerably more than that,” he said. “We try to only ask for the things we absolutely felt we needed, and not for anything else. So that’s why that number’s low. We’re trying to be conservative.”

The money comes at a time when the department says it needs it. In early June, Schmitt, a couple of detectives and a patrol sergeant and the head dispatcher all sat down with the Assembly and laid out big problems at the department. Mandatory overtime to cover patrol shifts was killing morale. Detectives were put on patrol shifts when regular officers were out sick or on vacation, which delayed investigations. In the last five years, positions have gone unfilled or been cut entirely.

Assembly members were sympathetic to the problems at the June work session, and they were sympathetic on Tuesday as well.

“Frankly, it’s about time,” said Assembly member Thor Christianson. He says he’s seen the problem both from his chair at the Assembly table, and from his work as a volunteer EMT.

“We’ve been using the police department to balance the budget for a few years now,” he said. “I can say from both personal experience at the fire department, seeing their staffing issues … the numbers are really eye-opening.”

Assembly member Pete Esquiro was the only one to vote no on the additional positions, though he didn’t explain why during the meeting. He did ask Schmitt what would have happened if the state hadn’t upped its contract this year. Schmitt said the positions would likely have gone unfilled.

“So these were items that you didn’t feel were high enough on your priority list to include in your regular budget?” Esquiro asked.

“That’s absolutely not true,” Schmitt replied. “These are fundamental. If we don’t have these positions, I feel like we’re putting the city at risk, particularly the dispatch and police officer positions. I feel strongly about that.”

Interim municipal administrator Jay Sweeney jumped in and said he also supported the additional positions.

“I was prepared to go back and try to re-work the budget to find a way to come up with the funding to make this work,” Sweeney said. “Thank goodness a windfall appeared and made our job very easy.”

The money that’s now freed up, besides going toward a patrol officer, dispatcher and traffic officer, will help fund a study to see if a new justice facility is feasible for the city. Exactly what form that will take depends on the study, but in a request for funding from the legislature, the city says its current building — which houses the police, the courts and several state offices — is inadequate.

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