PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough Assembly passed an amended version of their legislative priorities at their Tuesday meeting, discussing the possibility of a sheriff to lead any future police force.
The legislative priorities list included 14 items for borough action and funding that they will send to members of the legislature in hopes that they will act on the assembly’s legislative priorities. Among the 14 projects, the second listed action priority is a fully staffed Alaska State Troopers force of 71 officers in the Mat-Su Valley. Assemblyman Jesse Sumner moved an amendment that would allow for an elected sheriff to serve a borough-wide police force. Assemblyman Dan Mayfield sat on the Police Powers Taskforce that was assembled after a 2018 advisory vote to examine the issue passed borough voters.
“I think that’s a good tool for us to have in our tool belt going forward. I think it should have been done a long time ago. I think it’s a great oversight by the state,” said Mayfield.
Sumner’s motion preceded a lengthy analysis from Borough Attorney Nick Spiropolous, who said that if the legislature were to enact a change to Title 29 of the Alaska Statutes, it could be two changes that would be required to provide for an elected sheriff.
“State statute already says unless otherwise provided by ordinance, the clerk, attorney, treasurer and police chief are already appointed by the chief administrator,” said Spiropolous. “ When you talk about municipal powers and duties, you are granted powers by the state. Whether you choose to exercise them becomes an Assembly decision. When you’re talking about a police force as we currently are, the borough has no power to do it, so the normal way of obtaining powers is typically to go to the voters and ask for them. This would be a different way.”
The list of legislative priorities puts Knik-Goose Bay Road reconstruction with a price tag of between $120 and $150 million at the top of their list. Troopers is the second listed priority, followed by support for the West Susitna Access road, support for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities office on Seward-Meridian Parkway, an office for the Department of Fish and Game in the Valley, statewide transportation bonds and a forestry plan to remove spruce bark beetle kill trees. Sumner’s motion to amend the list passed 4-3. Assemblymen Tim Hale, Ted Leonard and George McKee voted with Sumner in favor of the amendment.
“I do believe the state unless things change, maybe going off a fiscal cliff there may be a situation where the state continues cutting and potentially cuts more Troopers from the Mat-Su. The single biggest thing I have people say is if we had police powers they would like to see it as a sheriff, and so in that eventuality I’d like that to be an option that we could pursue. When we send our lobbyists to Juneau, we’re always just asking for money, but we could ask for changes in the law and I think we’d be a lot more likely to get that this year than money, considering the fiscal situation,” said Sumner. “It was my intent that it be more limited to the option for an elected sheriff, but I’d point out that the state could already if they so chose defund the state Troopers and require all local governments to have their own police forces. So I would certainly not encourage that but what I’d like is that there be the option if they do continue cutting our Trooper staffing levels that we can have an elected sheriff position.”
Members of the Assembly questioned Spiropolous on how those powers could be transferred to the Assembly from the state. Spirpolous noted that debate continues over state education funding obligation and not all powers granted to the borough by the state are utilized, such as day care facility regulation.
“Would it also allow us to have a police force without going to the voters to get police powers,” asked Assemblywoman Stephanie Nowers.
Assemblyman Tim Hale pointed out that the amendment to the legislative priorities list would still have to result in some action by the legislature, which is out of the hands of the Assembly and up to state lawmakers. Assemblyman George McKee raised the question of whether or not a Borough police force commanded by a sheriff would result in a decrease in Trooper staffing levels.
“The state has wide discretion in what they do. I think you’re asking more of a political question in terms of will the Troopers pull out if we have police and that I don’t have an answer to,” said Spiropolous. “If the state grants the borough the power, all you would need is the Assembly to pass an appropriate ordinance. You would not need voter approval.”
After Sumner’s amendment passed 4-3, the complete list itself passed unanimously. Also included under Borough funding priorities was Houston Middle School with a pricetag of $13 million at the top of the list. HMS was followed by a request for roughly $16.8 million in School Bond Debt Reimbursement funds, over $17 million for approved road bond projects and seven million for an upgrade to the intersection of Bogard Road and Engstrom Road. The Shirley Towne Bridge that would have provided Willow residents a second way out during the flooding last winter carries a $200,000 pricetag at the bottom of the list. The fifth and sixth funding priorities listed both have to do with Port Mackenzie, asking for $140 million to complete a rail extension and six million for deep draft dock pile sleeve protection.