Haines may soon become the latest community to lose its Alaska State Troopers presence. A position goes vacant this month, amid sharp budget cuts, and officials are considering closing the Southeast town's post entirely.
Public radio station KHNS reported Monday that trooper Andrew Neason, who serves alongside a Haines-based Alaska Wildlife Trooper, is leaving his job in December. He won't be replaced until at least August, as troopers brace for budget cuts during the 2017 legislative session.
Haines Borough Police Chief Heath Scott said Tuesday locals learned Neason was leaving when he put his house up for sale. With four police officers covering the city of Haines, and two troopers and a park ranger covering other parts of the borough — an area roughly the size of Rhode Island — Scott said police and troopers often work together.
"It is a reciprocal relationship," Scott said. "Sometimes (the state trooper) is the only one who can deal with things outside of our townsite, and he calls us for backup; sometimes we're dealing with things in Haines, and we call him for backup."
Scott said he sent data to the state Department of Public Safety arguing that increased caseloads in the borough merited keeping a trooper presence in the community.
Col. Jim Cockrell, AST chief, said the Haines vacancy comes as 32 trooper positions have been lost over the last two years. Cockrell said the Haines position has been only intermittently filled, depending on budget and staffing levels, and had been vacant for a number of years prior to Neason's assignment.
"Essentially, the trooper there is resigning and going out of state to another law enforcement agency," Cockrell said. "We've lost over 20 troopers in this calendar year to other police departments, including four to the Anchorage Police Department."
Despite those losses, troopers are still struggling to answer increasing workloads across much of the state, particularly in the Bethel and Fairbanks areas, Cockrell said.
"Our volumes of calls don't go down because we essentially don't have any money," Cockrell said. "If you look at the Mat-Su Valley, we're not keeping up with the volume of calls there."
In Neason's absence, Cockrell said troopers from the Juneau post will be available to investigate routine crimes. The Haines wildlife trooper, who is fully capable of responding to crimes, will be on hand in case of emergencies.
Cockrell said a final decision on whether to close the Haines post isn't likely until Gov. Bill Walker signs the state's fiscal year 2018 budget into law next year. He pointed out that trooper posts have already closed in McGrath, Ninilchik and Talkeetna as well as Girdwood, the latter prompting a dispute between troopers and APD over which agency will patrol the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood.
In Haines, Scott is taking his case for more help to the borough Assembly. In addition, he plans to hold meetings in Haines and Mosquito Lake, at Mile 26 of the Haines Highway to Canada, to determine whether borough residents outside Haines want to pay for greater police coverage.
"We have to go out to the voters beyond our townsite and ask, 'Do you support a proactive law enforcement presence?'" Scott said. "I can go out there to an emergency, that's no problem, but do you want a constant presence?"