MEADOW LAKES — A pay increase is coming to hundreds of Alaska State Troopers to try to keep them from leaving the job.
Flanked by blue-shirted supervisors, Gov. Bill Walker announced a 7.5 percent raise for state patrol and wildlife troopers at a news conference Wednesday held at a Mat-Su post that's one of the state's busiest.
The raise, effective Sept. 1, is the result of negotiations between the administration and the Public Safety Employees Association, both say.
The governor said his administration plans to ask the Legislature to fund another 7.5 percent increase.
The pay raise is meant to entice new troopers but more importantly keep existing ones from leaving for better-paying jobs at the Anchorage Police Department or other agencies.
There are more than 50 funded but empty trooper positions around the state right now, public safety officials say. The job brings unique challenges: brutal weather, remote calls, and sometimes an overwhelming workload.
"To me, it's a retention crisis," Walker said. "Whether it's troopers going elsewhere because of better pay or better benefits, I pay close attention to that."
Vacancies and the resulting overtime burden on remaining troopers are leading to burnout and low morale, Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan said.
The job itself already comes with built-in hardships, Monegan said. He cited an active shooter call earlier this year in Pilot Station that required troopers to fly in, then snowmachine the last 30 miles to set up a perimeter before the armed man shot himself.
"You don't see that in other jurisdictions," he said.
The amount of the increase was the most the governor's office could do without legislative approval. It will be enacted by a modification to the public safety contract up for renewal next year.
The raise was based on wages paid at the Anchorage Police Department, where a few troopers migrate every year, said Doug Massie, a longtime wildlife trooper and the union's DPS board president.
Anchorage officers start out "immediately making more" than a first-year trooper, Massie said. By 10 years in, they're making 16 percent more than a trooper at that level. An Anchorage sergeant is making nearly 20 percent more.
It costs about $200,000 per trooper to bring one online, he said. The state lost 31 troopers to non-retirement separations in 2016, costing the state millions.
The press conference was held at the Mat-Su West trooper post near Wasilla in the unincorporated community of Meadow Lakes. Residents here rely on what the state admits are 25 too few troopers to police constant reports of thefts, drug use and break-ins.
A study earlier this year showed Mat-Su, considered Alaska's only large municipality with a growing population, needs more than 50 percent more troopers per capita to monitor an area the size of Ireland.
The timing of the announcement caused some to accuse the governor, running for a second term in a hotly contested three-way race, of currying favor with voters.
The state budget was already approved, former public safety commissioner Richard Burton said this week.
"Why do we wait two months before the election to make an announcement?" asked Burton.
He said the pay raises are a good idea, but troopers also need pensions restored. The state moved to a 401 (k)-style retirement plans in 2006.
Asked Wednesday whether there's any prospect to restore pensions, Walker said he expected another attempt at a "net neutral hybrid" that combined the new and old benefit plans provided it doesn't cost more.
As for timing, the governor's staff said the budget didn't contain specific salary increases but instead a directive spearheaded by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Nikiski, to negotiate a pay increase with the public safety union.
The troopers are operating with 52 vacant patrol and wildlife positions out of 389 authorized, Jonathon Taylor, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety, said in an interview Tuesday.
The state hopes to fill some with 21 potential troopers enrolled in the ongoing 18-week training class at the Department of Public Safety Academy in July. It's not clear how many will graduate in November.
Several years ago, just four people came through the academy, Monegan said. "This is a huge improvement."
The administration plans to ask the Legislature to fund more trooper positions, Taylor said.
The pay increase covers all but two colonels, officials say. If approved, the next one would not automatically apply to supervisors like lieutenants and captains, who are under a different bargaining group.