The Parnell administration wants to boost the number of village public safety officers in the coming budget year from 71 to 86 at a cost of $1.2 million.
At a Senate budget panel meeting this week, Public Safety Commissioner Joe Masters said the state is working hard on recruitment and retention of the officers, who work for Native organizations but are paid by the state and overseen by troopers. They don't carry guns but have authority to arrest suspects and investigate crimes.
As of Jan. 1, all but one of the 71 positions were filled, but since then the number has dropped slightly, Masters said Turnover is dropping but remains an issue, he said. The number of VPSOs has fluctuated over the years, depending on funding and retention, reaching a peak of 124 in the 1990s.
The administration also is seeking nearly $224,000 to give existing VPSOs a cost-of-living pay raise. The Legislature last year raised starting pay from $17 an hour to $21.
Masters presented the figures Thursday afternoon to the Senate's public safety budget subcommittee. For much of the hearing, only one legislator, Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, was present.
The panel's chairman, Nome Democratic Sen. Donny Olson, was traveling on Thursday to rural communities with Gov. Sean Parnell.
Olson chaired a Senate VPSO task force in 2007 that submitted a report to the Legislature the next year calling for 15 additional VPSOs a year. Lawmakers approved those additions in the 2009 and 2010 budget years after Olson added them into the budget, according to his aide, Jim Colver.
One study found a 40 percent drop in the rate of serious injury from assault in communities with village public safety officers or village police officers, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Statewide, 90 Alaska communities with populations above 50 have no law enforcement at all: neither trooper nor village public safety officer, neither village police officer nor tribal officer, according to Masters.
The commissioner said the state is working with Native groups to figure out which villages will get a VPSO, if lawmakers approve the proposal.
Find Lisa Demer online at adn.com/contact/ldemer or call 257-4390.