Homer sees big cut in jail contract with state

Homer scofflaws expecting “three hots and a cot” — three meals and a bed — when arrested by Alaska State Troopers will get a bonus under a new jail contract the city of Homer agreed to last month: a ride up the road. 

If troopers arrest someone on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the Homer area, prisoners will be taken to Kenai and a stay at Wildwood Pretrial Facility.

That’s the major change for Homer in a 45-percent cut — $366,000 — to community jails under 2015-2016 state fiscal year funding for the Alaska Department of Corrections. At the June 29 Homer City Council meeting, the council approved a new contract of $424,080 with the state for jail services. Last year’s contract was for $790,000.

That loss of funding is only the beginning of revenue cuts the city will face in the rest of its fiscal year and next year. The city is on a calendar fiscal year, so in effect the jail contract cut is a $183,000 shortfall, or half of the state cut for the first six months of the state fiscal year.

Because the cuts have resulted in the loss of one full-time jail officer position, the Homer Jail won’t accept people arrested by Alaska State Troopers on the non-peak days of the week. Troopers will have to take defendants up to Wildwood, said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl.

“It’s just going to come back on the state. They’re going to have to pay for that,” Robl said. “Instead of coming out of the corrections budget, it’s going to come out of the troopers’ budget. It’s truly not a well-thought out budget cut.”

If Homer Police arrest someone on Tuesdays and Thursdays, police officers will put them in jail and monitor them hourly. Dispatchers also can monitor prisoners on video camera.

Statewide, the community jail budget has been cut from $10.4 million to $7 million, said Deputy Commissioner Remond Henderson of the Department of Corrections, Division of Administration. Some jails like Homer saw a 45-

percent cut while other jails saw a 20-percent cut. Gov. Bill Walker got restored to $7 million an initial zero-dollar budget for community jails.

“That was the most equitable way we could distribute funds, making sure all of them could stay open,” Henderson said.

Homer Police also cut a dispatcher position. Robl said no one who had a job lost a job. One dispatcher was laid off, but got rehired when another dispatcher decided to quit.

The cut in dispatchers also means Homer Police won’t have two dispatchers on duty 24 hours, seven days a week, the goal of National Fire Protection Association standards. Dispatchers answer 911 calls for police, fire and medical emergency services in city limits. 

In an interview and a memorandum to Homer City Manager Katie Koester, Robl noted that the city is responsible for prisoners arrested by Homer Police and only until arraigned, when they appear in court before a judge on charges. Arraignment usually happens within 24 hours but sometimes 48 hours, Robl wrote. In 2014 Homer Police arrested 278 people that stayed in the jail before arraignment. Alaska State Troopers brought in 179 before arraignment.

“This is a budget cut that’s really not fair. We’re running this jail more for the state than for us,” Robl said. “Everything we do after we take them to court and drop them off is on the state’s dime.”

Henderson agreed troopers or judicial service officers would be responsible for transportation to regional correctional centers like Wildwood. He said he had heard reductions in community jail funding might result in increased transportation costs.

“We’re hoping that might not be the case,” he said.

Corrections hasn’t gotten any pushback from the Department of Public Safety on that issue, Henderson said.

As alternatives to being housed in community jails, the state is working with the Alaska Department of Law and the Alaska Court System to do fewer transports to courthouse and more telephonic arraignments. Many prisoners already wind up at Wildwood, particularly for felony cases, and arraignments are routinely done electronically, with prosecutors, defense attorneys and prisoners attending by audioconference.

Robl said defendants sentenced to short time under 10 days may have to do their time at Wildwood and not Homer. The city will try to clear the jail out on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That means a defendant serving a mandatory three days for a driving under the influence conviction may have to go out of town — with troopers responsible for bringing them back to Homer.

Corrections also is looking into alternatives to jail, what it calls “hard beds,” like electronic monitoring for short sentences or first offenders, Henderson said.

Robl said he’s talked to other Alaska police chiefs who also have community jails. They have formed a small group to raise concerns with the state and try to negotiate with Corrections. In his memo, Robl said he and other chiefs hope to have some funding restored, although they’re not hopeful of a return to full funding.

Koester said the city invites citizens to share their thoughts on how to address growing budget concerns at a town hall meeting to be held at 5:30 p.m. July 20 at Homer City Hall.

“We have more holes to fill,” she said. “What do we value here? Let’s have a community conversation about it.”

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.