PALMER — Mat-Su officials are looking to boost trash and junk cleanup efforts in the region with labor provided by court-ordered community service workers.
Under state law, people who commit misdemeanor crimes, such as petty theft or driving without auto insurance, can be ordered by a judge to perform community service hours as part of their sentence. Other would-be defendants in special categories, such as juveniles, can perform community service as part of a pretrial step known as a “diversion program,” which lets them avoid entering the court system or gaining a criminal record. The Alaska Department of Corrections also operates inmate work programs through which those convicted of crimes perform community service work.
Now borough officials want to let those workers serve on crews performing community cleanup, trail maintenance and other physical labor, borough attorney Nicholas Spiropoulos said Nov. 14 at a special borough assembly meeting focused on trash and junk issues.
“The ball is squarely in our court now, mostly administratively,” he said. “We come up with a program that we track who’s coming in, when they’re supposed to be here.”
About 2,500 people, including first-time offenders and those guilty of low-level offenses, could qualify to work for such a program each year, Spiropoulos said at the meeting.
To get a community work service program off the ground, the borough would likely need to assign a staff member to organize and direct workers, he said.
Spiropoulos, whose office is spearheading the effort for now, had no estimate as to when such a program would get started or whether extra staff would need to be hired to manage it, he said.
“We are working through it, we are looking into it,” he said. “It’s going to be a pretty big undertaking.”
The borough public works department previously operated their own version of the program, but it ended sometime before 2011, he said. A fact sheet actively distributed by the district courthouse in Palmer erroneously includes that program as a current option, listing a point of contact who hasn’t worked for the public works department since about 2010. The sheet says it was last updated in 2018.
The proposed community work service program is one of several ideas considered by the borough in recent months to address junk and trash on public land and private property across the area. A temporary junk car removal program that ended in late October reimbursed residents $200 for each vehicle hauled off their property by designated private tow services. And early this month, borough officials sent letters to nonprofits registered with Mat-Su to learn if they would be interested in helping with trash cleanup programs. They said they expect responses from those queries to trickle in over time.
The new community work service program was first suggested in August by Palmer District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard during a special assembly meeting looking at how the borough can address nuisance properties in the area. Borough officials during that meeting said there is a shortage of staff or community volunteers to perform needed trash cleanup around the region. Wininger-Howard suggested people coming through the court system could help fill that gap.
“I’m hearing ‘exhausted volunteers,’ ‘shortage of volunteers.’ I know there’s been programs where we’ll use offenders to do community service,” she said. “If you stole or have this lower-level drug (offense), ‘Hey go clean up this area collecting trash and the case will be dismissed,’ or something like that,” she said.
Spiropoulos developed his proposal based on that suggestion, he said.
Spiropoulos said he is not aware of any local governments in Southcentral Alaska that currently have such a program. A community work service program with the Anchorage Parks and Recreation Department ended operations in late 2021, an official there said.