Governor’s mid-year budget bill cuts VPSO recruitment funds

Chair Senator Bert Stedman of Sitka addresses presenters from the Office of Management and Budget. (Alaska State Legislature photo)

There are eight vacancies for Village Public Safety Officers in Interior Alaska Villages.

Governor Mike Dunleavy has proposed pulling back $3 million in unspent money for the VPSO program to help pay for larger Permanent Fund Dividends, among other items. The proposal is in Senate Bill 39.

The Village Public Safety Officer program has had difficulty recruiting in recent years, leaving entire towns without a law enforcement presence. Earlier this week, Governor Mike Dunleavy released a mid-year budget change he wants to implement right away. Alaska Senators, like Scott Kawasaki of Fairbanks, expressed their dismay that the recruitment money was cut.

“This governor campaigned on public safety and crime prevention,” Kawasaki said. “Why are they taking money out of rural Alaska? Isn’t the life of a rural Alaskan, and isn’t public safety in rural Alaska just as important as public safety in downtown Anchorage or downtown MatSu.”

Funding for the VPSO Program is provided by the legislature and managed by the Alaska State Troopers. The funds are awarded to participating regional Native nonprofit corporations through grant requests. Those Native nonprofits are the employers for the VPSOs in their region. In Alaska’s Interior, the contracting Native nonprofit is the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

There are 29 Interior villages listed as being served by the VPSO program. But right now, many have no officer, and some have only one where two should be stationed.

Legislators reacted this week to the governor’s proposal that the Alaska State Troopers get $3.5 million more. Most of that, a little more than $2 million, will go to salary increases intended to keep veteran officers serving as Troopers. Recent studies showed many law enforcement agencies in Alaska weren’t paying as well as agencies elsewhere.

At a presentation of the supplemental budget request to the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday, Senator Lyman Hoffman says he was surprised that the VPSO program didn’t get the same recommendation as the Troopers did.

“The two items, to me, are directly related. When we addressed the unfilled positions of the Troopers last year, they need to be readdressed as well,” Hoffman said.

The governor’s budget director told the committee that because many VPSO positions have not been filled, there was $2.8 million of unspent money in the VPSO program that could go to other areas.

Yesterday, Senator Jesse Kiehl of Juneau says that money should stay with village contractors trying to recruit officers.

“If in fact, these positions are un-fillable, there’s no difference to the Treasury in leaving the money in or taking it out,” Kiehl said. “But deleting it (from the budget) says ‘stop trying.’ Deleting it says  don’t work on public safety with VPSOs anymore.”

The governor will submit a formal operating budget proposal for next fiscal year on February 13.

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