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Anchorage police jokingly call the cops who shuttle prisoners to court "cabbies for convicts," but the top brass weren't laughing when Gov. Frank Murkowski vetoed funding to turn the job over to the state.
Anchorage Police Department Chief Walter Monegan says the veto means keeping six officers off the streets, and it also violates a contract between the state and city that sets out whose job it is to transport municipal prisoners.
Monegan said the city may take the state to court.
"I think that's the only (option) we're left to," Monegan said. "This was an attempt to resolve a long-standing dispute without having to go to litigation."
Mayor Mark Begich on Thursday wrote Murkowski that his veto was based on faulty information and he asked the governor to take over the transport duties or reimburse the city.
Begich said in his letter that Anchorage pays the state $2 million a year for prisoner transport and confinement. He wrote that a lawsuit over the issue was prepared in January, but the city held off based on assurances by Murkowski's budget and public safety department heads.
"That was the funding you vetoed Tuesday," Begich wrote.
The $462,000 appropriation to the Department of Public Safety's Division of Judicial Services was the only cut Murkowski made before signing the operating budget. He called prisoner transport a local responsibility.
The Judicial Services Division is responsible for transporting state prisoners - prisoners who face charges from the state and not from the city. In Juneau and Fairbanks, the division transports municipal prisoners along with state prisoners.
Six Anchorage police officers work full time to move prisoners and defendants from three regional jails and pretrial detention centers to court. Under the budget passed by the Legislature, that job would have been handed over to Judicial Services and the six Anchorage officers would have been reassigned.
"We planned on using those officers for domestic violence. They would have been on the street instead of (being) cabbies for convicts," said APD Deputy Chief Rob Heun.
Police officials say a 1999 prisoner care agreement between the state and the city sets out prisoner transport as a state duty. The contract was signed by the municipal manager of Anchorage and commissioner of the state Department of Corrections at the time.
In the years after the agreement was signed, Anchorage police continued to transport prisoners while a new jail was being built and while the state budget was tight.
"Everyone was going through budget restraints at the time, we wanted to give them a chance to get through that," Deputy Chief Audie Holloway said.
But this year, the state has extra cash thanks to high oil prices and the city wants to enforce the agreement. Monegan said that would free up his six officers, who would be transferred to the domestic violence unit. There, two full-time officers handle 320 cases a month, Monegan said.
The state's commissioners of public safety and corrections said the intent of the contract was not to transfer transport duties to the state, but to maintain the status quo. The state has never transported Anchorage's prisoners and the contract does not change that, said Corrections Commissioner Marc Antrim.
"We can agree it should have been worded a little bit more clearly, but the parties' intent to a contract matters as much as what is on paper," he said.
Public Safety Commissioner Bill Tandeske said the contract is between the city and the Department of Corrections, but Judicial Services is under his department.
"The Department of Corrections can't obligate the Department of Public Safety to do anything," he said. "We've never accepted responsibility for municipal prisoners."
Tandeske acknowledged prisoner transport arrangements with the cities of Juneau and Fairbanks, but in Juneau's case it's an informal arrangement to move municipal prisoners during the week, and the Division of Judicial Services is not obligated to do it.
In Fairbanks, he said, there are too few municipal prisoners to matter. Fairbanks Police Acting Deputy Chief Brad Johnson said most defendants are prosecuted under state law, but there is a minority of municipal prisoners and the state transports them, too.
In Anchorage, the Division of Judicial Services has 16 court service officers and four commissioned Alaska State Troopers, Tandeske said. They extradite prisoners, execute warrants and do other court-related work, but most of their time is spent transporting state prisoners, Tandeske said.
Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, went to the corrections and public safety departments during the last legislative session and came back with details of what it would cost for the state to take over the prisoner transport. Hawker, who is on the House Finance Committee, was able to get the item on the operating budget. He said he disagreed with the veto and the state should recognize the contract's legal standing.
"A contract is a contract," Hawker said. "The state has an obligation to live up to its contracts."
Murkowski vetoed just that one item before signing the operating budget, which spends nearly $2.6 billion in state general funds.
"This is clearly a local responsibility and, indeed, is currently being performed by the Anchorage Police Department," Murkowski wrote in his transmittal letter.
Some suspect the veto may be politically motivated. Monegan and Heun said they think it may be retribution against Hawker, who voted against a bill to change the state's retirement systems.
Murkowski and Senate Republican leaders had pushed hard for Senate Bill 141, which faltered in the House, forced a special session and eventually passed.
"It smells like politics to me," Heun said.
Hawker said it would be inappropriate for him to comment. But he added: "My position against 141 was very unpopular with the administration and many Republican leaders. However, I'd like to believe that every issue stands on its own, and my position on the pension issue did not color the governor's decision on this issue."
Murkowski's budget director, Cheryl Frasca, said it was inaccurate and irresponsible to suggest the veto was politically motivated.
"If we were going to do that there probably would have been a hell of a lot of items we'd veto," Frasca said.