Couched within the soon-to-be-decided debate on Anchorage Assembly Ordinance (AO) 37 is a debate about public safety, ignited by dueling campaign signs.
AO 37 is an extensive re-write of Anchorage municipal labor code. It was written by the administration of Mayor Dan Sullivan and introduced in February 2013. While it was quickly passed by an Assembly sympathetic to Sullivan, it sparked another dialogue about public testimony after Assembly Chair Ernie Hall cut testimony on AO 37 short.
Among its many provisions, AO 37 eliminates municipal unions’ rights to strike and binding arbitration. It establishes the practice of “managed competition,” whereby the municipality can contract out public union work to private vendors who are not directly accountable to the public. During a February 15, 2013, work session on AO 37, Assemblyman Paul Honeman asked if that meant Anchorage dispatch work could be done in India. The municipal attorney’s office did not answer directly, but earlier said that dispatch work was subject to the changes in AO 37.
AO 37 also curtails pay and benefits for municipal workers, including public safety workers.
A compromise version of AO 37 that was eventually backed by the unions and would have avoided a referendum on the law passed the Assembly in August, but it was vetoed by Sullivan.
A series of political maneuvers resulted in the referendum appearing on the same ballot with Sullivan, who is running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket with Gov. Sean Parnell. A “yes” vote on the referendum would retain AO 37 as originally passed by the Assembly, while a “no” vote would repeal it and return to the previous municipal labor code.
Though the pending referendum of AO 37 put the law on hold, unions have been negotiating short term contracts with the municipality as if many of its provisions were in effect.
Last October, Sullivan announced a 2014 municipal budget that would be smaller than that of 2013. As part of that budget, Sullivan planned to reduce wages for new Anchorage Police Department (APD) hires to offset increases in labor costs. Anchorage Police Department Employees Association (APDEA) President Derek Hsieh said the plan would hurt retention rates.
“Currently the police department is in a staffing crisis, and I think the public is well aware of that, so labor costs are more a function of lack of staff as opposed to individual employee costs,” Hsieh told KTUU.
APDEA says that Anchorage has lost 20 percent of its police during the Sullivan administration. In November of 2013, APD had 343 sworn officers, according to Alaska Dispatch News (ADN). That number was down to 328 by February.
The potential impacts of AO 37 are compounded by a 2005 change to public employee pensions passed in the state legislature. Hsieh says this has also affected retention. “We recently lost three senior officers to a department in Lower 48 that gave them credit for their APD service in their new pension plan. Our employees are receiving very generous lateral offers,” Hsieh told ADN.
One frequently hears the argument that a business climate must be “competitive” or companies may go elsewhere. It featured prominently in the debate over the “other” Prop 1, repeal of an oil tax cut that failed in the August primary.
AO 37 raises the same question of competitiveness, but this time for workers.
Contravention of PERF Recommendations
“I am concerned that if we start dropping below the level we are at now we might start seeing some negative results,” Sullivan said of police staffing in February. Yet he remained defiant. “But look at the crime statistics and tell me what I am missing in our administration with a trend of downward crime, not a trend of upward crime.”
A look at the 2013 APD Annual Statistical Report shows that Sullivan is missing a trend of upward crime. In a five year window, crime bottomed out in 2011 with 11,843 crimes. That increased to 13,022 crimes in 2012 and rose dramatically to 14,476 crimes in 2013. 2012 and 2013 had more crimes than any other years during the Sullivan Administration.
The municipality contracted with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) in 2010 to conduct an audit of APD. Per the PERF report, APD had 396 sworn officers in August 2009, but municipal budget constraints suggested that number would drop to 362 by the end of 2010.
APD advised PERF that it set a goal of 40 percent of unobligated patrol time to encourage community policing. By reducing the amount of time patrol officers spend responding to calls, for example, police would have more time to interact with the community positively and learn where there were areas for improvement.
To hit the 40 percent target, PERF said APD would have to add 58 positions.
APD won praise in the PERF report for its traffic stops. “They occur at an average of almost 200 a day, just over eight per hour,” the report reads. “This is indicative of a vigorous and proactive patrol force.”
The 2013 statistics indicate APD traffic stops are way down. The PERF report warned that a reduction of even 20 sworn officers from 2010 numbers would have such an effect, including the resultant reduction in revenues. 20 fewer officers would also increase caseloads dramatically for Theft. In 2013, cases of theft increased by 37 percent.
The report also warned that a decrease in staffing of 30 sworn officers would mean the percentage of officers’ time dedicated to calls for service would increase from 46 percent to over 50. That number would increase to 55 percent with 40 fewer sworn officers. In these scenarios, “[P]atrol will need help responding from supervisors, specials units, or from overtime officers,” the PERF report said. “They may not have enough time to fully process one call before they have to respond to the next.”
Sullivan has frequently been critical of overtime pay for municipal workers, which cuts into the budget. But PERF was clear what a reduction in the police force would mean for overtime payment. It listed the need for overtime to address basic service calls with 30 fewer officers. As of May, APD staffing was down by almost 50 from the time of the study.
Holding Down Police Staffing
Police academies are the means of restoring APD numbers in the face of retirements and resignations, but Sullivan has often resisted them with claims of budgetary constraints. From the early days of his administration, he has placed the blame on unions and the outgoing administration of Mark Begich, currently running for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
In 2010, Sullivan vetoed a budgetary amendment by the Anchorage Assembly that would have funded a police academy in
early 2011. Honeman, who sponsored the amendment, said it would not have meant a tax increase. When Sullivan said he planned on holding an academy in late 2011, Honeman responded, “That’s unacceptable, in my opinion. To me that doesn’t show a commitment at all to public safety.”
Sullivan announced a budget gap of $20 million for 2011. While again blaming unions, Sullivan planned to cut 15 people from APD, eventually reduced to eight by federal grants. The budget did not include a police academy.
Sullivan amended the 2011 budget in April that year to include a police academy after “efficiencies” yielded savings. The academy graduated in April of 2012, the same month Sullivan stood for re-election. Assemblywoman Elvi Gray-Jackson criticized Sullivan for suddenly uncovering a surplus when he had originally announced a $20 million deficit.
This has been a pattern for Sullivan. He has announced deficits for every budget his administration has drafted, yet come out with surpluses repeatedly. He predicted a $15 million gap for 2012. The subsequent surplus prompted municipal unions to send Sullivan a letter after the introduction of AO 37. They questioned the haste of the AO 37 process, writing, “we do not understand the urgency in light of what we understand to be the Municipality’s 2012 budget surplus of $19-30 million.”
A predicted $30 million shortfall for 2013 also turned into a $13 million surplus. The “Plan A” version of that budget cut 29 APD positions and 19 vacant spots. “Plan B” cut just the vacancies, according to ADN.
Sullivan did plan an academy for late 2012, which graduated in March 2013, right before the Assembly election including incumbent allies Adam Trombley and Cheryl Frasca, both of whom voted for AO-37.
What It Takes for a City to Be Safe
Sullivan has run the city on these tight budgets with reduced staffing while consistently refusing to tax to the cap. Underfunded and understaffed, APD has not been able to meet its community policing goals.
In response to ADN’s 2012 inquiry about raising police force numbers, Sullivan said, “I think what it’s going to rely on is our administration has to negotiate contracts with all of the employee groups with the recognition that if we really want to increase service, we have to hold the line on expenses.”
In retrospect, we now know Sullivan had AO 37 in mind, an ace in the hole for the municipality to tip the scales of collective bargaining.
Signs for the well-funded “No on 1” campaign are all over Anchorage in the weeks before the referendum, but last week, a few copycat yellow “Yes on 1” signs began to appear. These come from the “Vote Yes for Anchorage- Vote Yes on 1” campaign run by former Assembly members Frasca and Chris Birch, who also voted for AO 37.
While the “No on 1” signs read, “Keep Anchorage Safe” across the top, the “Yes on 1” signs read, “Lower Taxes, Fairer Wages, Safer City.” “Yes on 1” is probably correct on the first point; not paying Anchorage workers as much should result in lower taxes. Whether those wages are fair is entirely subjective.
The last point — that retaining AO 37 would make Anchorage a “safer city” — does not seem to be borne out by the evidence. On the contrary, it appears a safe city requires a robust, well compensated work force accountable to the public.
“As long as crime statistics are going the right way… then we’re accomplishing what the mission is, which is a safer community,” Sullivan said in 2012.
That is no longer the case, so it may be time for Anchorage to pursue a different strategy.