This is a photo of the Juneau Police Department station in Lemon Creek. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire)
Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire
This photo shows the Juneau Police Station in Lemon Creek. Juneau Police Department Employees Association Board on Thursday made public its concerns with the city’s ability to recruit and retain sworn officers.

This is a photo of the Juneau Police Department station in Lemon Creek. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire) Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire This photo shows the Juneau Police Station in Lemon Creek. Juneau Police Department Employees Association Board on Thursday made public its concerns with the city’s ability to recruit and retain sworn officers.

Police union urges city action amid dwindling number of officers

City leaders acknowledge challenges, seek solutions.

Juneau Police Department Employees Association Board expressed its growing sentiment that Juneau’s public safety is being threatened by City and Borough of Juneau officials’ inaction to address the department’s lack of staffing, low wages and low retention rate, according to a Thursday evening letter sent to multiple news outlets.

“We are not doing an adequate job,” said Sgt. Sterling Salisbury, JPDEA president in an interview with the Empire. “We are making it work and doing the best we can, but with each officer we lose it just gets worse and worse.”

Salisbury said JPD is in a crisis and needs city action for the department to provide adequate public safety, which he said is not happening anymore. The department is currently down 12 officers — 22% of the entire JPD staff — and according to Salisbury, within the next three years he expects another 10 to retire.

The JPDEA recently bargained for its three-year cyclical contract with the city starting in January, and came to an agreement this summer after declaring an impasse and proceeding with mediation, but not going through with arbitration.

Per the union’s contract agreement with the city, JPD officers received the same 5.5% wage increase all CBJ employees received, along with a 5% increase to the employer health contribution.

Salisbury said during negotiations the union was not satisfied with the offer by the city but ultimately agreed, which he said was an effort to “not fight with the city” and to not prolong the negotiations. The association could not publicize its dissatisfaction during negotiations due to bargaining rules that barred the association from speaking publicly.

During negotiations, Salisbury said the board considered JPD to be in a growing crisis, but now he believes the current staffing and retention issues are bordering on a public safety issue s after the department lost four officers in the last few months.

Salisbury said the inadequacies come by way of more delayed response to calls, and the officers are strapped to the point where most of the time when public safety issues arise, JPD is reacting to the incident, instead of having proactive response which might prevent some of the issues from ever occurring.

Salisbury said the group wants to see the city take action to address the retention and the staffing shortage by applying a hiring bonus to new officers, increasing wages and benefits to match Alaska State Troopers and the Anchorage Police Department, increasing its current retention bonus package and providing take-home vehicles to a portion of officers.

Prior to the letter being sent Thursday evening, the association met with Mayor Beth Weldon, City Manager Rorie Watt, Deputy City Manager Robert Barr, and human resources manager Shannon McCain to share concerns with officials and prompt action.

However, Salisbury said he felt the issues were largely unheard of by the city officials and felt the meeting did not offer any adequate solutions, prompting JPDEA share a letter with the public. He said city income, such as the unanticipated $2.3 million in additional sales tax during this summer, should be considered as a way to fund the solutions the board outlined and criticized the city’s “free” spending, specifically the Eaglecrest gondola project.

Watt said he hears the association’s concerns and said there is a lot of validity behind what is being brought forth, however, he emphasized that JPD’s lack of retention is part of a citywide issue that also needs to be addressed.

Currently, CBJ has more than 40 open vacancies, according to the CBJ website.

Watt pointed to the issue being largely driven by a 2005 legislative move that made Alaska the second state to switch from its defined benefit plan, more commonly known as a pension plan, to a 401(k)-style defined contribution retirement plan for teachers and for public employees.

The switch — which was generally supported by Republican legislators and opposed by Democrats — was largely pushed by lawmakers who were concerned with the underfunding of the state’s previous defined benefit plan which offered guaranteed retirement benefits for government employees with payouts that were determined by an employee’s salary, age and length of service.

Watt said the change can essentially allow employees in city positions to leave their positions at any time to private counterparts and still continue to maintain their defined contribution plan, instead of the previous plan which offered benefits built over time, which Watt said encourages employee retention both in JPD and the city.

“Now everyone has portable retirement plans — it’s a real issue,” he said.

Watt said he does believe the city raised wages to match the current market after negotiations this summer but acknowledged there need to be other solutions brought forth to make the city a more attractive place than other job markets.

“This city has lots of staffing issues right now,” he said. “We’ve seen this coming — I wasn’t surprised.”

Watt said for these solutions to happen, it’s ultimately going to come down to Assembly action via allocation or ordinances, which he said inherently takes a long time and requires patience.

Weldon agreed and said she plans to discuss the issues with the Assembly at its upcoming January Finance Committee meeting, listing discussions that add benefits such as recruitment bonuses, retention bonuses and looking for ways to find a city solution that could possibly mimic a defined benefit-like the retirement system — if possible.

“I don’t think anything is off the table, but there are lots of pieces to the puzzle,” Weldon said. “We certainly have some work to do, but I think it was a good starting point and the best thing to do is communicate and work together.”

Weldon said she has become more conscious of the specific issues impacting JPD after speaking with the board, however, she said staffing issues are a citywide problem, not just a problem specific to JPD.

“I understand their concern with the lack of recruitment — we will have to work on that — but to say we don’t care, I don’t think is a fair statement,” Weldon said.

Assembly member Greg Smith said he was surprised by the letter but not surprised by the issues outlined. He said he wants to find ways as an Assembly to fund solutions, but said he doesn’t know if the Assembly is able to fix all major problems. Smith specifically mentioned the state’s switch from a defined benefit plan, which he said is a big contributing factor to the city’s lack of retention, but he said he is open to any and all ideas brought to the Assembly.

“Obviously I was concerned about the lack of officers and civilian staff at JPD — who are a critical part of our community — and we know it’s been more than a struggle for them, and I am open to ideas on how we can make things better,” he said.

• Contact reporter Clarise Larson at clarise.larson@juneauempire.com or (651)-528-1807. Follow her on Twitter at @clariselarson.

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