Valley voters apparently won’t get to weigh in this fall on the creation of a Matanuska-Susitna Borough police force, a proposal now creating more questions than answers.
Borough Mayor Tim Anderson has said he hoped residents would get to vote on whether the borough should adopt policing powers at the October borough elections.
But last month, the Assembly tabled a proposal that would have done just that. And at a Tuesday work session, a majority of Assembly members seemed to agree they would prefer to hold the question for the October 2006 ballot.
“I just don’t have enough information to be able to sell this to voters in three months,” said Assemblywoman Jody Simpson.
Earlier this year, a task force recommended the borough adopt policing powers to combat reports of increasing property crimes and other problems in outlying areas, then contract with the Alaska State Troopers to ultimately add 31 new patrol officers.
Last month, Anderson suggested the borough first ask voters if they support local police powers, then later ask them to approve additional property taxes or a sales tax to pay for the service.
Several Assembly members Tuesday voiced concerns that Mat-Su could lose troopers if the voters approve a borough police authority -- a problem if funding is not in place.
Wasilla lost trooper patrols after city voters approved a sales tax to create a police force in 1992, said Assemblyman Talis Colberg. Assembly members worried that the borough may lose trooper presence if it takes on policing authority.
“What happens if the troopers say, ‘You have the power to do it. We’re pulling out in six months’?” Colberg said.
The troopers would never “abandon an area” that adopted policing powers, spokesman Greg Wilkinson said Wednesday.
Houston is a better example than Wasilla, Wilkinson said. That city hired a police officer last year, but the troopers continue to patrol."Where they can handle their own law enforcement, they let them," he said. “When they can’t, we are there to support them ... We won’t stop supporting them until the time they are clearly able to carry the load on their own.”
Assembly members also wondered whether the borough could guarantee patrols by troopers to residents of certain areas, say, in the Butte, who agree to pay higher property taxes in exchange for policing.
Wilkinson said that would need to be worked out contractually. Troopers dedicate the “lion’s share of their time” to small communities around the state, he said, but as statewide responders answer calls for help on major incidents elsewhere.
And the spokesman raised yet another issue that could dog the borough proposal: It would take action by the Legislature to allow Mat-Su to contract with the troopers.
Under Alaska law, the borough can’t just give the troopers money and get guaranteed services in return, Wilkinson said. Legislators would need to accept the borough money into the general fund, and then also approve giving the money back to the troopers for Mat-Su patrols.
“Right now, it’s kind of like a cart-and-horse situation,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a little more complicated than just saying, ‘We’ll hire the troopers.’ “It would cost $5.6 million to realize the task force recommendation, borough estimates show.
Adding patrol officers doesn’t necessarily solve the crime problem, Assembly members pointed out. More officers may lead to more arrests, which in turn bog down already overloaded prosecutors and judges who actually punish offenders.
Assemblywoman Lynne Woods suggested the group needs experts’ input and public hearings.
Anderson, at the end of the meeting, expressed his hope the delay doesn’t spike the police proposal altogether.
”Things tend to get stuck in a corner in this borough, and then they go away,” he said.
Reporter Zaz Hollander can be reached at the Daily News Wasilla office at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-6711.