Homer Feels the Squeeze of State Budget Cuts

Homer City Hall - Photo by KBBI
Homer City Hall – Photo by KBBI

The City of Homer holds a contract with the state to house prisoners arrested by the Alaska State Troopers outside city limits. The contract is still in place but to save money the state will stop paying about $350,000 to Homer. That is nearly 45 percent of the contract revenue.

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“I would say we’re somewhere between desperate and just getting by,” says Mark Robl.

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl has recently lost a full time jail officer leaving him with less than 24-hour coverage of the jail.

“To compensate for that we have dispatchers monitoring prisoners through [a] video surveillance link and we have police officers going into the jail and performing jail officers’ duties when they’re not here,” says Robl.

The loss in funds is just another blow and it makes the chances of hiring a new jailer bleaker. Robl has been expecting the cuts since February but he says he wasn’t aware they would run so deep until about a month ago.

“It really makes a bad situation worse to some degree in the summer when we’re stretched so thin on patrol with all of the call volume that we have to deal with,” says Robl.

Robl will probably have to pull officers off patrol or have them work overtime to fill in as jailers. KBBI reported earlier this year the Homer Police Department was already stretched thin under perhaps the highest caseload per officer in the state. In a budget request for 2015 the department reported a caseload of about 570 cases per officer. Homer City Manager Katie Koester isn’t sure if hiring more staff will be possible anytime soon. On top of the jail cuts this year the city could lose another $320,000 in state funds called revenue sharing. Koester says the Homer City Council decided it would be unwise to rely on that money after the state warned it would eventually take it away.

“It was put into the general fund. It basically was used for balancing the budget and covering operating costs. That being said council has said, ‘don’t do that anymore.’ You have to consider it as one time funding because of the uncertain nature of it,” explains Koester.

This potential loss in revenue comes at a time when the city’s budget is already vulnerable.

“The city government has kind of been trimmed as close to the bone as it can be over the last few years since we lost the revenue from non-prepared food sales tax. The city went through a big exercise in trying to become more efficient,” says Koester.

Koester says now if it’s going to save money the city has to look at cutting services. There is a town hall meeting planned for July 20th at 5pm to explain the city’s position.

“We’re just going to have a conversation with the community about how to close this gap and what services we provide and how much they cost. I encourage the community to come out on July 20th for that and we will advertise that on our website and through other venues,” says Koester.

Koester isn’t optimistic the city’s situation will change for the better in the near future considering the state’s fiscal environment. She says we’re all in for some tight times. Chief Robl says he’s just hoping for a new jail officer to take the strain off his department.

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Quinton Chandler is a reporter at KTOO in Juneau.

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