Fearing layoffs, Anchorage police check out the troopers

With city considering cutting the budget, cops could find better job security with state.

Anchorage Daily NewsSeptember 12, 2012 

Fearing layoffs from the city budget shortfall, dozens of Anchorage police officers met with recruiters Wednesday from the Alaska State Troopers to hear what the state law enforcement agency has to offer them.

The officers, most of them hired a year ago and fresh out of the Anchorage Police Department's academy, are worried that they'll lose their jobs as Mayor Dan Sullivan's administration tries to bridge next year's $30 million budget gap, of which more than half is because of labor costs.

On Wednesday, more than 50 officers met at the Anchorage Police Department Employees Association union hall in Midtown for a trooper sergeant's presentation, aimed at attracting them to state employment and away from the city.

The morning meeting, one of two sessions Wednesday, filled up the union hall's conference room with police officers, mostly men, a few women and reporters and television photographers invited by the union. Several of the officers brought their wives.

"The bottom line is we are hiring, and you guys are our top candidates," Sgt. Luis Nieves, with the troopers, told the room of police officers. "You wouldn't have been hired by APD if you didn't already have the basics."

"With the Alaska State Troopers TV show, a lot of (potential recruits) come up, take one look at the white stuff and head back down south," Nieves said, as many in the room chuckled.

Both the mayor and union president Derek Hsieh called the budget situation unfortunate and said it's still a work in progress. And while Sullivan says no decision has been made yet about layoffs at the police department, he's not ruling them out.

For the officers most at risk of getting a pink slip -- the younger, more recent hires -- the fact that the troopers have job openings means they still have options, even if that might mean moving away from the city to a remote part of the state to work for the troopers.

One of those is Officer Robert Block, who relocated to Alaska from Minnesota with his wife and toddler last year so he could be a police officer in Anchorage. The rookie cop graduated from the department's academy in April, completed his field training with another officer watching over him and has been patrolling on his own for about two months, he said. Block, who has another child due in March, said he's considering applying to work for the troopers or moving back home if he gets laid off.

"A lot of it feels like I don't know what's going on, because there's so much behind the scenes going on, stuff that's happening. It's like we're not supposed to know about it quite yet, what's going on with their secret political stuff," Block said. "In the meantime, I've got to get a Plan B set up ... I'm usually pretty good with change, if this is what needs to be done, so as long as I can support my family, I'll do what I have to do."

Hsieh said it will hurt the police department's reputation as an employer if it has to let go of its most recent hires. The troopers are offering an "extremely competitive package," Hsieh said, and whether there are layoffs or not, the union president fully expects some officers to get hired away by the troopers.

Hsieh invited the troopers' recruiters to meet with the members currently paying dues to his union and said he's not concerned about losing those members, who would have to join another union, as long as the officers find work.

"That's fine. You know what? My job is not to keep guys in the union. My job is to ensure these law enforcement professionals are serving the State of Alaska or the Municipality of Anchorage," Hsieh said. "These guys cost $100,000 each to train, and what I don't want to see is them in the unemployment line."

Mayor Sullivan asserts that the union is a major part of the problem. Contracts negotiated under the administration of his predecessor, now-Sen. Mark Begich, gave the police officers contracts that, during a recession, could not be sustained, Sullivan said. The union also negotiated their "last hired, first fired" policy that causes the newer officers to be laid off first, he said.

"That's the worst case scenario, and it's not our intent, nor was it when we approved this academy, that those folks would all of a sudden be looking at other job opportunities," Sullivan said. "There's no doubt that public safety is the most important (city) job, and any elected official is going to tell you the same thing. Our problem is, the size of the budget gap is such that every department is going to have to find ways to participate in the savings. In doing that, we're going to try to minimize any impact to providing a safe community."

The union has not yet offered concessions -- such as a one-year wage freeze or incentives for the most senior officers to retire early -- that could help bridge the gap, Sullivan said. And it's not certain that a smaller police force would result in a less-safe city, he said.

"It's not a matter of how many officers you have, it's how you deploy those officers," Sullivan said.

As for the union's public relations campaign against possible police layoffs, Sullivan said he wasn't surprised.

"I don't think it's productive, quite frankly. And I don't think the public sees it as a positive thing," he said. "People, I don't think they're interested in hearing these complaints when (the police) are such a highly paid workforce."

A meeting between city and union officials is set for Thursday.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

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