Crime & Courts

With state troopers post set to close, Girdwood mulls policing options

Alaska's only ski resort town could be without a definitive law enforcement presence for six months or longer when the Alaska State Troopers post here closes in January.

Though the closure would leave the community without regular policing, local residents say they're less concerned about opportunistic criminals than they are about two public safety alternatives that could double taxes.

Nestled into a valley in the Chugach Mountains less than an hour's drive southeast of Anchorage, Girdwood is home to about 2,700 people. In winter, when the skiing and snowboarding is good, outsiders pour in and stay at the ski resort or fill up the many short- and long-term rental properties near the base of Mount Alyeska.

John O'Leary, owner of a coffee shop, The Grind, said people here worry rents will increase in what is already considered a "luxury-lifestyle destination."

"The biggest concern I'm hearing, and that I agree with, is the taxes will skyrocket," O'Leary said. "That makes the working class sweat. Multiple people are already packing into apartments so they can get by washing dishes."

The discussion surrounding increased taxes is tied to a resolution passed by the community's representatives, the Girdwood Board of Supervisors. It outlines two options for police protection in the upcoming absence of troopers.

Under the first option, Girdwood -- part of the Municipality of Anchorage since 1975 -- joins the Anchorage Police Department service area. The option requires a municipality-wide vote and would increase the Girdwood mill rate by 2.97-- or an increase of about $600 a year on a property valued at $200,000. It would nearly double the current tax rate for Girdwood property owners.

The second option creates a local Girdwood police service area, which would still be serviced by the Anchorage Police Department. This would require a local vote and residents would pay the total cost. It would have a similar effect of nearly doubling taxes, local officials said.

Neither of those options fully considers the public safety needs of other, smaller communities off the Seward Highway now served by the Girdwood post. For now, their involvement remains an unknown.

Decision to close trooper post is ‘concrete’

The resolution does not identify a preferable option. Instead, it asks the Alaska Department of Public Safety keep the Girdwood trooper post open for an election cycle plus "reasonable time for implementation" of the community's choice on policing.

The earliest a vote could happen is April 2016, and then at least a couple of months will be needed to establish the new police presence.

Department of Public Safety director Col. Jim Cockrell said the decision to shutter the Girdwood post is "concrete." He said the request for a time extension was considered, but he does not think Anchorage police will be overburdened by helping out for several months.

The trooper post sits between a pizzeria and an ice cream shop in a strip mall off the Seward Highway. On a recent weekday, it was dark and empty. Locals said that's often the case, as the troopers keep busy patrolling the highway.

Six troopers are stationed at the post, Cockrell said. Its general function is patrol of the highway from the boundary of Anchorage proper south to Hope and Summit Lake on the Kenai Peninsula.

The six troopers will be reassigned, split evenly between Anchorage and Soldotna. The state's budget crunch has the public safety department reviewing its structure, the director said.

The Soldotna trooper post will lose five officers by next year, and law enforcement in that area already has a hard time keeping up with calls for service, he said.

The state will save about $70,000 annually by closing the Girdwood post. That total includes the cost of rent and administration.

Differences of opinion

In a perfect world, Girdwood would maintain the status quo, said incoming Board of Supervisors co-chair Sam Daniel. Troopers are "a good fit for the community," he said.

Daniel contends the second option, a local police department, would cost more in the long run due to intergovernmental service fees. For example, if a major crime occurred and the Anchorage District Attorney's Office got involved, Girdwood residents would pay those legal fees, he said.

"We'll be in a costly position" regardless of the chosen police model, Daniel said. "Those intergovernmental charges would end up exceeding what it would be if (Girdwood) were part of the Anchorage police service area."

Longtime resident Lou Thiess argues against Anchorage police patrolling the small town's roads, more than half of which are dirt.

Thiess, who is also a member of the public safety task force, characterized the first option as "featherbedding," or giving people frivolous jobs. He said he prefers an alternative method of local policing.

His suggestion is two residential officers who live in Girdwood. Some form of community policing, getting the locals engaged with police presence, leads to mutual respect and heightened accountability, he said.

Thiess also proposed part-time officers who work some weekdays and weekends but said the Anchorage Police Department has offered nothing except a "full meal deal" -- three shifts including three officers.

APD Chief Mark Mew said in an email that it's true the municipality is reluctant to commit to a different level of service, as it would create variations in police presence within the same service area.

"There is so much we do not yet know," Mew said. "If we were to pick up the highway enforcement (McHugh Creek to Portage), and all the areas along it -- including Indian, Bird, Girdwood, Portage, etc. -- three officers at a time may not be overkill by anyone's standard. If we are getting only Girdwood proper, then the discussion changes significantly."

Potential crime

As a longtime resident, Thiess believes Girdwood residents are able to look after one another.

Sitting in The Grind, Thiess removed a page from the local paper, the Turnagain Times. The "Trooper Report" section detailed alleged criminals' run-ins with the law. The majority of incidents, he pointed out, happened along various points on the Seward Highway; two thefts occurred in town.

O'Leary, the coffee shop owner, echoed those sentiments. He said the town is able to handle local issues and doesn't put up with anything felonious.

Theft of skis and other small property happens, O'Leary said, as many people pass through town, especially in winter. He said the likelihood of burglaries and other, more serious crimes once the trooper presence has evaporated aren't a major concern.

Alyeska Resort representatives believe Girdwood should have a law enforcement presence, said director of marketing Eric Fullerton. The resort employs its own security and typically handles minor issues, though troopers are summoned for criminal activity, he said.

The potential of a more serious crime is present, as it is in any community, said Girdwood fire chief Brad Chadwick. His first concern is for his medics.

Chadwick's first responders are trained to handle medical emergencies and fires. They're not meant to act as police officers, he said.

"They're not trained to go in and deal with violent or hostile situations," the fire chief said. "We've always relied on the troopers to help us out with those things."

Bigger problems

Either of the proposed changes would hit Girdwood's largest property taxpayer, Alyeska Resort, especially hard. The resort owns the Hotel Alyeska and the most popular ski destination in Southcentral Alaska.

Resort representatives have stated at public meetings that a few more slow skiing seasons coupled with a doubling of taxes might "cause the resort to rethink their business model," the resolution says. It was an assertion Alyeska's Fullerton reiterated.

"We're not just looking at it as a tax issue," Fullerton said. "There are other things affecting the resort," like climbing health care costs and increased wages, he said.

And Girdwood has a tough fight if it hopes to convince Anchorage voters to OK its inclusion in the city's police service.

According to the resolution, municipality voters have never approved a Girdwood-specific measure since the two communities combined in 1975, even when Girdwood picks up the tab and overwhelmingly votes in favor.

Fire chief Chadwick dubbed Girdwood the "jewel of the municipality." Anchorage residents drive down the highway to recreate, and they deserve a nice place to continue to do so, he said.

"In order to do that we need to provide a safe community, where people feel comfortable coming to," Chadwick said.

Jerzy Shedlock

Jerzy Shedlock is a former reporter for Alaska Dispatch News. He left the ADN in 2017.