PALMER — The Palmer City Council decided not to take action on Ordinance 19-007 when it was reintroduced on Tuesday.
The ordinance sprang from a group of concerned residents. The Valley Interfaith Action met early in 2019 with Palmer City Councilwomen Julie Berberich and Sabrena Combs and Palmer Police Chief Lance Ketterling. The residents asked for assistance from the police in addressing alleged ‘trap houses’ along Chugach Street. Police struggle to curtail criminal activity from the houses. Berberich and Combs sponsored Ordinance 19-007 to set a limit of eight calls for excessive criminal activity.
“Based on what I learned about the nature of the excessive calls, I feel that it is something that his council should consider adopting and if you would do so, I’m confident after speaking with the police chief at the meeting that our local law enforcement will be able to enforce this ordinance and adjust in a fair manner for our neighborhood and our community,” said Caesar Marciales.
However, council staff were not as convinced that the ordinance would eliminate trap houses. Similar ordinances exist in both Anchorage and Wasilla and neither community has broken free from crime altogether. The ordinance proposed was nearly a carbon copy of Wasilla’s excessive call ordinance, but staff still felt that it would not completely eradicate trap houses.
“It’s a change in philosophy on how we as a community are approaching problems,” warned City Manager Nathan Wallace.
Wallace said that Palmer Police are at capacity for responding to calls as is and would remain understaffed if the excessive call ordinance was passed. Wallace also noted that additional attorney’s fees would be required to prosecute excessive calls.
“I have called the police on them for excessive speeding, noise after quiet hours, loose dogs, a knife fight in the street that was during broad daylight, trespassing addicts looking for a way into my house, burning smelly trash in the back yard and harassing children who are walking home from the bus stop. Many more issues went unreported because frankly vigilance is exhausting,” said Hillary Palmer. “People are tired of feeling powerless against these nuisance properties. We need a new set of tools to fix this problem.”
Ketterling noted vague language in the ordinance that made him uncomfortable from an enforcement standpoint. Ketterlilng mentioned cases from the American Civil Liberties Union targeting those who have been discriminated against and are looking to make new case law. Ketterling asked for as many bright lines as possible to eliminate subjectivity from officers.
“I believe it is time for us to change our philosophy. Palmer is not the same town that it was 10 years ago, five years ago, 20 years ago. Crime is on the rise, drug use is on the rise, homelessness is on the rise. It’s time for us to spend the money. It’s time for us to change the budget and make these a priority because this town is not the same,” Combs said.
Combs was particularly confused about an email she had received. City Attorney Michael Gatti, Wallace and Ketterling had responded to an email with the ordinance that they had no significant changes but brought their concerns to the meeting. The motion was postponed and will appear before the council at a later date. Ketterling and Wallace were concerned that the city would get into the business of evictions if this ordinance passed.
“That’s how we’re going to begin to take our community back. This is how we send a message that Palmer is a place for families, for business, for tourism and sustainable industry and not for drugs and crime,” Palmer said.
The council heard a presentation from the Vice President of Institutional Advancement for the Alaska Bible College, Ray Rose.
“We do love being here and we hope that the city of Palmer recognizes Alaska Bible College as an asset to our great community,” Rose said.
Rose detailed how ABC was founded in 1959 in Glennallen and graduated its first student, an Athabascan woman, in 1970. The ABC had only 12 students for the 2012-2013 school year and moved to Palmer. Rose said that it is one of if not the only four-year accredited bible college in southcentral Alaska. Rose said that ABC offers aviation programs and will begin its own education program. Rose noted an economists analysis that each dollar spent in a local community is multiplied and that the economic impact of ABC’s $900,000 a year spent in Palmer is over $6 million. Rose plans to meet with each council member individually.
Wallace gave good news to the council during his report. While Wallace only expected $300,000 in grants for the Americans with Disability Act compliance, Palmer was awarded over a half a million dollars in grants to make sidewalks compliant.
Palmer’s daughter Cambria also spoke to the council. Cambria Palmer recently finished her school year at Sherrod Elementary and thanked the council for plowing sidewalks.