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Drop in tickets issued by Anchorage police worries city treasurer

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published December 20, 2015

The number of traffic tickets handed out by Anchorage police officers fell sharply this fall compared to the same time last year, a shift the city treasurer pointed out as a cause for concern to an Anchorage Assembly committee last week.

Deputy police chief Garry Gilliam said there was an explanation: Staffing issues combined with the demands of training of new recruits. He said those are also factors behind a 50 percent drop in Anchorage traffic ticket volume since 2009. But Gilliam also stressed that unlike the treasury department, the police department is not focused on raising revenue.

At a Thursday meeting of the Assembly's budget and finance committee, city treasurer Dan Moore highlighted a dip in the volume of traffic tickets since July compared to last year, especially from September to November.

Compared to the same time last year, traffic tickets fell 15 percent in September, 34 percent in October and 25 percent in November, Moore said. For November, the drop since last year was 1,955 tickets to 1,460 tickets.

Those figures contrasted from the first half of the year, Moore said. Traffic ticket volumes were on the rise compared to the previous year, by an average of 20 to 30 percent. From a revenue perspective, Moore said it had appeared the volume of citations was recovering from a "rock bottom" in 2013 and 2014.

Moore told Assembly members he hadn't been given an explanation for the September-November drop-off.

"It is of concern, we really thought we'd bottomed out (in recent years)," Moore said. "This will affect things for 2016 if it were to continue."

Overall, the police department is expecting a net revenue shortfall of roughly $941,000, when accounting for all types of revenue beyond traffic tickets, Moore said. He said the Anchorage Police Department is the only city department on track to fall short on its revenue projections for the year.

Over the past six years, the annual number of traffic tickets in Anchorage has declined markedly. In 2009, police wrote 56,622 tickets, according to data provided by Moore. By 2014, that number had fallen to below half that amount, to 23,281 tickets. Police are expecting to write 22,400 tickets overall in 2015, data show.

Anchorage drivers haven't miraculously changed their behavior, said Gilliam, the deputy police chief.

"Have you seen a major change?" Gilliam asked. He said the issue is that fewer cops are on the streets to enforce the laws, particularly in the last several years -- a topic that dominated the most recent city election.

An emailed chart from Gilliam showed the department had 400 sworn officers in 2009, compared to the current ranks of 360. In the middle of 2012, APD's traffic unit was cut in half, and those officers were shifted to patrol, Gilliam said.

In his presentation to the Assembly, Moore also characterized traffic tickets as a "resource-driven issue." But he said that as far as he knew, the resources hadn't changed between the first and second halves of the year.

Gilliam, who said he hadn't spoken to Moore about the issue, said the drop was likely in part to training a new crop of recruits, which involves pulling instructors from the traffic unit.

He also generally emphasized that raising money is not the police department's focus.

"Contrary to some beliefs, APD does not specifically write citations to generate revenue," Gilliam wrote in an email accompanying the charts showing staffing. "The primary purpose for writing citations is to change bad driving behavior in order to make our roads safer."

The cost of many traffic tickets recently increased in Anchorage. The Assembly in November approved increasing the amount of about 260 types of traffic tickets, based on a proposal from Mayor Ethan Berkowitz.

Berkowitz, rolling out his new budget, pointed to the increased fines and fees as a way to pay for more cops and firefighters. His administration also wrote in a memo the revised fine schedule was based on inflation and was meant to promote safer driver behavior.

Traffic tickets were projected to bring in $722,000 in additional revenue, which officials said would come not from increased enforcement but from the same number of officers writing the same number of tickets.

Moore mentioned that rationale to the Assembly, and said the latest figures show officers are, in fact, writing fewer tickets.

"When the majority of the Assembly increased police fines, the assumption was volume," Moore said. "(That what) we thought was rock bottom would stay at that level and not further."

Compared to last year, traffic tickets actually saw the biggest decline in August -- from 2,981 tickets to 1,772 tickets, a 41 percent drop. But there's a clear explanation, Gilliam said: A major international conference on climate change, and the visit of President Barack Obama, diverted a substantial amount of police resources around that time.

Gerard Asselin, president of the local police union, also said he expected the training of new recruits in the fall was a likely reason for the slowdown in tickets collected.

Like Gilliam, Asselin also said he's uncomfortable with discussions about the police department and revenue.

"The idea of traffic enforcement is not about generating revenue, it's about modifying behavior," Asselin said. "So when government starts to count on citations being issued as a way to meet budgetary concerns, it frustrates the whole system."

Gilliam noted the city is planning to hold three police academies in 2015. He said "maximum efforts" are underway to fill the academies and boost the overall number of officers -- a campaign promise of Berkowitz's.

Fire department to exceed budget, but also seeing revenue boost

While police are seeing a lower volume of traffic tickets, the Anchorage Fire Department has a different problem: Far more ambulance transports compared to last year, though officials said there's also been a corresponding boost in revenue generated by the department.

Data provided by the city treasury department show a 9 percent increase in ambulance runs for the first nine months of 2015, compared to the same period last year.

Fire chief Denis LeBlanc said in a phone interview that about half the increase in runs is being attributed to the drug Spice. He said he wasn't sure of the exact percent of cost recovery on ambulance runs billed for Spice, but suspected it was "probably low."

LeBlanc said the department is seeing increased costs associated with greater demands for maintenance on the ambulances, and overtime for firefighters and paramedics.

As a result, the fire department is expecting to overspend its budget by about $930,000, Moore said in his Thursday presentation to Assembly members. Earlier this year, officials had pegged the budget overrun at about $650,000. The fire department needs Assembly approval for the additional appropriation.

At the same time, LeBlanc said the fire department expects to exceed its revenue projections for the year.