Kodiak’s first responders are struggling, with a dozen vacant positions between both the fire and police departments. Both the fire and police chiefs say a lack of affordable housing options in the city has exacerbated the shortage.
Tim Putney is the Kodiak police chief and has been with the department for over 20 years. In a joint letter with the fire department to the City Council earlier this month, Putney told the City Council that the last time the police department hired a patrol officer was over a year ago, and that was a local hire.
“We kind of just said ‘hey we’re having a hard time finding people and when we do find people, it’s rare that they even follow through with moving to Kodiak because they all start looking at the housing market and the rental market and they kind of give up before they even make any serious plans to get here,'” Putney explained. “So it takes a lot of time, energy and resources to get somebody to that point.”
He says the hiring process for the Kodiak Police Department (KPD) can take a few months and cost up to $10,000.
The Kodiak Police Department currently has four vacant patrol officer positions, and three open positions in corrections. KPD hasn’t been able to staff a school resource officer in several years. Their canine unit has also been disbanded. And the department is anticipating three other police officers leaving Kodiak, who have to relocate due to “life reasons”, by the end of 2025.
Fire Chief Frank Dorner said in the joint letter his department is currently down six positions. Both departments are asking the City Council to look at public safety housing initiatives to address the problem, such as providing temporary housing just for first responders.
Other options the police department has thought about include hiring more local people, adjusting officers’ shift schedule and possibly increasing wages. Putney has considered a variety of ideas to address a lack of staff, but he says the housing shortage must be the first obstacle to overcome in order to fill long-term vacancies.
“Maybe there is something like the military does where you give somebody a stipend for housing, as another possibility,” Putney said. “[I’m] not necessarily advocating for the city to get into the landlord business. I think we should probably just stick to trying to make property available, and making sure we can get utilities there and then letting the private industry come in and set that up,” he explained.
The Kodiak City Council discussed the letter from the fire and police departments on Tuesday (Jan. 23) during a work session. A potential solution for the city is state funding dedicated to professional housing in rural communities.
Deputy City Manager Josie Bahnke told council members the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation’s Rural Professional Housing program offers the city a few options for procuring new housing.
“This particular grant program can be used for new construction rehab or purchase of new properties. So those options are wide open to us,” Bahnke said.
AHFC is currently requesting $9.5 million in Governor Dunleavy’s capital budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year and a total of $37 million through FY2030 to fund new housing in six to eight rural Alaska communities.
Even though more funding is earmarked for fiscal year 2025, there are no guarantees that all of the money will be approved. And even if it is, construction of new homes in Kodiak could still take years under the Rural Professional Housing program.
The City Council plans to update their State Capital Improvement Program list during an upcoming meeting in February and include support for the statewide housing program.
Regardless of what the City Council decides to do, Chief Putney says next month KPD will no longer have a detective. Originally the department had a three-person detective unit, which dropped to one about two years ago. Starting in February the police department’s lone detective will be spending their time on patrols to help fill the gaps in coverage.