Legislature(2001 - 2002)
04/26/2001 08:03 AM STA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 145 - VILLAGE PUB.SAFETY OFFICER PROGRAM Number 1827 CHAIR COGHILL announced that the next order of business would be CS FOR SENATE BILL NO. 145(FIN), "An Act relating to regional and village public safety officers; relating to the expansion of the village public safety officer program to include the provision of probation and parole supervision services; and relating to retirement benefits for village public safety officers." Number 1850 SENATOR RICK HALFORD, Alaska State Legislature, sponsor, said that since SB 145 is fairly self-explanatory, he would simply explain how he got interested in the concept of SB 145: If you look in our correctional institutions, we see ... too many rural and village Alaskans. Should you ask why they're there, you see ... [that] too many are there for, essentially, probation violations. Three years ago, we started on an effort to try and get people back to the small communities ... [that] they came from. What happens is: ... people have alcohol problems; they get in trouble; they're incarcerated. As a condition of probation, they have to stay in an urban center or a regional center where all the alcohol, all the predators, and all the problems are. So, they go back through the cycle, and that's one of the many reasons that our system is not as fair as it could be. So we've put in a demonstration project to try and get people back to their villages by allowing VPSOs [Village Public Safety Officers] to get a little bit of extra training and ... help in probation supervision; so somebody [on probation] that comes from a very small village can get back to where they've got family, where they've got support, [and] where they're away from all the problems [of] ... regional centers. That's been going for a couple of years and it worked. The first part of this bill makes that a statewide program. It also allows, as a part of that, ... for an increase in pay for VPSOs who take the training and go through the process and are working with the supervision, not only of Public Safety, but also the supervision of the probation/parole corrections people .... So, those are two elements of the bill. Number 1957 SENATOR HALFORD continued: The third element of the bill is to create a career path, so that these people who have a very high turnover rate and have a lot expected of them with very few resources, have at least someplace to be headed. The turnover rate is something like two years, [which] costs ... something like $6,000 or $7,000 to train these people. About half the people you see go through the program are trying to get into some kind of law enforcement, and that's the way to get some training to be a security guard somewhere, or something else. They're not really committed to going back into Village-Public-Safety-Officer work on a long-term basis. We want to increase that; we'll save the money in training. ... That's the third leg of [SB 145]: ... a career path. The fourth leg of it is a retirement program that is the state's basic retirement program in PERS [Public Employees' Retirement System]; it's not the public safety retirement program, it's not the highest cost one, but at least it's a basic safety net. Depending on which of the corporations they work through, the retirement programs are good, bad, or indifferent. This gives them a choice of getting into that [PERS] retirement [program]. So it's a four-legged program for what I consider the best deal there is, in law enforcement, in the State of Alaska in the areas of the highest need and the lowest local resources. REPRESENTATIVE JAMES thanked Senator Halford for bringing SB 145 before the committee, and said she is very impressed. SENATOR HALFORD added that although the fiscal note shows about $1.1 million, the thing that can't be quantified is how much the state will save by keeping people from going back into "corrections." He opined that SB 145 provides a real savings to the state, not just in cash, but also in what it does for the people. REPRESENTATIVE STEVENS said it seems to him that some of the biggest problems pertaining to VPSOs are burnout and lack of career and retirement opportunities. He asked what career opportunities would be made available via SB 145. Number 2100 SENATOR HALFORD explained that SB 145 creates a tier between a State Trooper and a VPSO, called a Regional Public Safety Officer (RPSO). He added that the fiscal note reflects four RPSOs positions, which are intended to be filled from the ranks of the VPSOs rather than "filled from above." The RPSOs would have the same responsibility and training as full police officers, and hopefully would not have to leave their own community, although they would be responsible for the VPSOs from the other communities in the area/region. The RPSO [position] is intended to be a career path for the VPSO program. SENATOR HALFORD noted that one of the things that VPSOs need is support; they get it from the Troopers, which also gives them the respect of the community. But if they're having trouble with somebody, they're unarmed and they don't have a lot of power or force in a small community. However, if someone, who has obviously been giving the VPSO a hard time in front of the rest of the community, leaves for Bethel or a regional center in handcuffs with a Trooper, the message gets back that the Troopers are out there working with, supporting, helping, and backing up the VPSOs. Then the VPSO in that community is respected. That's a part of the package, he opined; it will take more supervision and more help at the Trooper level. REPRESENTATIVE CRAWFORD noted that according to testimony heard at previous meetings, there are about 70 villages that have no law enforcement at all. He asked how far SB 145 would go towards bringing VPSOs to those villages. SENATOR HALFORD said that SB 145 upgrades the VPSO program from top to bottom, and it creates new opportunities. However, it doesn't pick up a large chunk of added funds from communities that don't already have VPSOs. "There are several options for that," he added, one of which is some federal money that is tied to "dry communities." He explained that for SB 145, he was working under the limitations of "about a million dollars" in terms of fiscal notes. In response to questions, he clarified that it is the fiscal note that specifies four RPSOs, whereas SB 145 simply creates the RPSO program. With regard to which regions are going to get an RPSO, he said he tends to look at the poorest areas of the state, "certainly somewhere in the Chalista (ph) region, Lower Yukon/Lower Kuskokwim, ... probably Interior Rivers, and maybe ... Southeast." He added, however, that he would leave that decision to the people who know what is really needed: the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the VPSO coordinators. Number 2393 CHAIR COGHILL asked, "Are we going to run into trouble with probation authority given to VPSOs?" SENATOR HALFORD explained that probation authority is unique in that it is judge, jury, and sentence, all at the same time. A full state probation/parole officer can "violate" somebody and take him/her into custody, right then and there, based on that person's performance. "That is not something that you give to the VPSOs," he clarified, "that is something that remains with Corrections." What is being proposed via SB 145 is a coordinated power that is less than the ability to simply violate somebody on the spot. The Department of Corrections (DOC) personnel really have a unique authority as officers of the court to act in a far more expeditious manner than most others. CHAIR COGHILL noted that SB 145 is going to allow the PERS retirement system to work through corporations. He asked whether the state is going to be able to do that contractually. SENATOR HALFORD said that the state would be able to do so. He noted that both the municipal league and school boards are set up in a similar fashion. State government employs neither group, yet both qualify for PERS. He added, however, that there has been some concern expressed regarding how the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) will treat a VPSO retirement program, but noted that he has seen a legal analysis which indicates that, "We're OK." Number 2502 DOUG NORRIS, Major, Administrative Commander, Division of Alaska State Troopers, Department of Public Safety (DPS), testified via teleconference and stated that he has worked with the VPSO program on and off for about half of his career. He said simply that the Alaska State Troopers support SB 145; "it goes a long way for our wanting of more troopers and VPSOs, and also that midlevel officer, the RPSO." In response to a question, he said that he did not foresee any problems with the VPSOs working with correctional officers, which they already do, off and on, as needed. Number 2586 BRAD ANGASAN, VPSO Program Manager, Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA), testified via teleconference and said that the BBNA has been a participant in the parole supervision pilot project for the last two fiscal years. This pilot project delegates authority to VPSOs so that they can perform adult felony probation duties. "What we've been able to provide is direct on-site monitoring and instant accountability, as well as judicial follow-through of a probationer." One of the more obvious benefits is that this service is delivered locally within the probationer's respective community, and this service eliminates "potential and infrequent response" of the district probation officer, who is at times handicapped by geographic location and other unknown factors. MR. ANGASAN said that on top of allowing probationers to effectively assimilate back to their villages, the BBNA has experienced some significant direct results: specifically, reduction in annual turnover of VPSO staff. At one time the turnover rate was above 50 percent but is currently at an all time low of about 10 percent. He said the BBNA attributes this to the increased compensation for VPSOs on the pilot program, although it is still difficult to hire people at the entry level VPSO salary. He added that the BBNA endorses the provisions allowing VPSOs into the PERS. Currently, he said, the BBNA's retirement program is pretty meager - about 5 percent; "we're simply unable to provide long lasting security for employees." He also said that regardless of the BBNA's immediate turnover rate, they anticipate that many officers will most likely move onto other career tracks that offer equitable pension security. "Much to our distaste; we'd rather employ an officer and be able to keep that person on and maintain a career track within our organization ...." In conclusion, he said the BBNA endorses SB 145. Number 2764 ROBIN F. LOWN, VPSO Program Manager, Tlingit-Haida Central Council (THCC), and Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), said he is also the chairman of the VPSO Coordinators Committee, which consists of the VPSO coordinators from the nine nonprofit organizations that run the state's VPSO program. In response to a question about the PERS provision of SB 145, he said that the nine nonprofits each have a different retirement system: some of them are really nice and some of them are not; some offer small annuities and some have regular retirement systems. The PERS provision of SB 145 "will bring everybody up to the same standard," which will be very helpful in enhancing the VPSO program. CHAIR COGHILL asked whether the PERS provision would reduce the [retirement program] standard for some VPSOs. MR. LOWN noted that the way SB 145 is currently written, a VPSO has the ability to "opt out" of the PERS. In some of the nonprofits, the retirement [program] is better than PERS, so some VPSOs would "opt out," he surmised. He added that if any retired state employees are working for one of these nonprofit organizations as a VPSO/RPSO, he/she would probably "opt out" so as not to give up state retirement benefits. Mr. Lown noted that in addition to the BBNA, the other eight nonprofit organizations that have VPSOs also support SB 145. He then listed low pay and lack of benefits as some of the factors involved in the current high turnover rate of VPSOs; SB 145 goes a long way towards helping resolve some of those problems. He also noted that the RPSO position gives VPSOs someplace to go, career-wise. REPRESENTATIVE STEVENS asked what purpose the RPSO position would serve, aside from providing a career opportunity for a VPSO. TAPE 01-49, SIDE B Number 2988 MR. LOWN said that the oversight function an RPSO would be performing is currently done by the Alaska State Troopers. The ratio of VPSOs to RPSOs, however, would be less than it currently is for the troopers providing oversight now. REPRESENTATIVE CRAWFORD noted that VPSOs are on call 24 hours a day. He asked whether VPSOs are allowed to "go on with other tasks," for example, subsistence hunting and fishing, or other aspects of their lives. MR. LOWN clarified that the VPSOs are not required to be on call 24 hours a day, but because they are living in the community they serve, and everybody knows who they are and where they live, they are, in effect, on call all the time. He added that VPSOs can leave the village to tend to other things, and there are some provisions that allow them to go subsistence fishing. But the problem is that VPSOs are right there, and they're the ones that people go to when there are problems, which leads to "burnout." REPRESENTATIVE WILSON asked whether the RPSOs would carry guns. MR. LOWN explained that according to SB 145, the RPSOs will be fully certified police officers: they will attend the academy, they will get Alaska Police Standards certification, and they will be full police officers. In response to another question, he said that in comparison to a trooper, the RPSO will be more attuned to the smaller area, more familiar with the local people, and hopefully they will even be from that area. CHAIR COGHILL, after noting that probation/parole responsibilities will be a big part of SB 145, asked the DOC to comment on its role regarding that provision. Number 2808 CANDACE BROWER, Program Coordinator/Legislative Liaison, Office of the Commissioner, Department of Corrections (DOC), explained that because of the way in which the pilot program is working with the BBNA, the DOC envisions that this program, when applied statewide, will be very beneficial to the DOC because, obviously, the DOC can not have probation officers in all those villages. The provision in SB 145 would provide training for the VPSOs who are already located in the villages, and these VPSOs would provide an extra set of eyes and ears. They would be able to do some of tasks that a probation officer can do, such as get urinalysis samples and Breathalyzer samples, have probationers and parolees report in to them, and monitor the behavior of the probationers and parolees. In response to a question, she confirmed that when VPSOs have this additional authority they will be given more respect in the village. She noted, however, that the VPSOs would be accountable to DOC probation/parole officers, so the likelihood of VPSOs taking advantage of that extra authority would be minimized. Number 2684 JANET PARKER, Retirement & Benefits Manager, Division of Retirement & Benefits, Department of Administration (DOA), in response to a question, assured the committee that the PERS retirement provision of SB 145 can work. She noted that similar programs have already been set up. Since the funding is coming from the state, there is a connection between the government and these [nonprofit] entities and therefore, she opined, this provision can be worked out. She added, however, that the division did want to wait until they received an IRS ruling on this issue so as not to jeopardize the tax-qualification status of the program. With regard to a timeframe for a response, she noted that the division still has to ask for a ruling on this issue, but has been told that the IRS is fairly responsive to inquiries from government agencies. CHAIR COGHILL, after noting that many of the nonprofit corporations involved in the VPSO program are Native corporations, asked whether tribal sovereignty would become an issue if SB 145 becomes law. Number 2662 KATHLEEN STRASBAUGH, Assistant Attorney General, Governmental Affairs Section, Civil Division (Juneau), Department of Law (DOL), pointed out that since the VPSO program is already a cooperative program, the essential contract between the state and the corporations isn't really going to be changed by SB 145. She added that in any discussion with the IRS the state will note both the governmental and nongovernmental aspects of what the corporations do and what the role of the VPSO is. She opined that SB 145 does not make any fundamental changes to the cooperative relationship that the state has had with these corporations for years, particularly since VPSOs can "opt out" of the PERS retirement program if they so choose. REPRESENTATIVE JAMES said that her concern is that a VPSO's ability to choose PERS will "water down" what the corporations offer since retirement programs often become stronger when there are more participants. SENATOR HALFORD opined that the number of VPSOs involved is quite small compared to the total number of people involved in nonprofit corporations' retirement programs; therefore the VPSOs will not have a significant effect on those retirement programs. REPRESENTATIVE FATE, after noting that only four RPSOs are funded via SB 145, asked what future fiscal needs are anticipated. He opined that to have a successful program, in addition to more VPSOs, more RPSOs would also be needed. SENATOR HALFORD explained that the four RPSO are the new people in this "baseline program," and that although the VPSO program is being upgraded as a statewide system, the size issues beyond this are not yet being dealt with. He said that the more VPSOs there are, the more "certified police enforcement" would be needed to backup the VPSOs. Without enough proper backup, VPSOs are in greater danger. After acknowledging that "the need is out there in small communities," he, too, noted that there are about 70 communities that do not have any law enforcement. Number 2243 REPRESENTATIVE HAYES moved to report CSSB 145(FIN) out of committee with individual recommendations and the accompanying fiscal notes. There being no objection, CSSB 145(FIN) was reported from the House State Affairs Standing Committee.