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New crime lab

Monument to government waste

OP-ED by Dan Fagan
Publisher, The Alaska Standard

To give you an idea of how big Alaska's new crime lab will be when completed, it will be roughly the same size as the Egan Center, and the Alaska State Capital. Remember we are talking about a lab housing fewer employees than your average fast food joint.

And the project is expensive. When you factor in the costs to complete it, it is more expensive than any other crime lab in the nation with one exception, the FBI crime lab in Quantico, VA. When I say the FBI crime lab I mean THE FBI CRIME LAB.

The FBI lab cost $130 million to build in 2003 and is the only crime lab in the United States more expensive than the one Alaska will build. The FBI crime lab cost only $20 million more than the Alaska crime lab. Our lab, when complete, will end up costing the state at least $110 million. The FBI crime lab houses 650 employees, the Alaska lab will house 40.

This project is so big, the administration, in an effort to keep costs down to a measly $91 million, will leave one fifth of it incomplete. It will take an additional $20 million to finish.

How does the cost of Alaska's proposed crime lab compare with other recently opened facilities? According to the think tank, the Alaska Policy forum, in Iowa officials there spent half of what Alaska will for a public health lab, medical examiner lab, agriculture lab, and crime lab combined. Iowa's facility will serve a population four times the size of Alaska and they will do it for half the cost.

And then there is the new Los Angeles County project. The new five-story facility houses both the L.A. Police Department Crime Lab and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department Crime Lab, along with classrooms for the California Forensic Science Institute and California State University. The LA project with all those other functions will cost the same as Alaska's crime lab, which by the way is only a crime lab. The LA County lab is designed for a staff of 400 compared to Alaska's housing 40. The LA County crime lab handles evidence from 140,000 criminal cases compared to Alaska's caseload of fewer than 4000. Remember these two facilities cost practically the same to build.

How does Alaska's proposed partially finished crime lab compare to the price tag of the recently opened laboratories of the Missouri Highway Patrol, the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix Police Department, the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation, and the State of North Dakota. According to Alaska Policy Forum our crime lab will cost $6 million more than all of these projects combined. That's five crime labs built for the price we are building one.

If you are looking for a similarly populated area to compare crime labs, North Dakota is a perfect fit. North Dakota's new lab is one-fourth the size of the one Alaska is proposing and will handle roughly the same caseload. Will Alaska spend more for its crime lab than North Dakota? Yes. 17 times more.

Some may argue when it comes to fighting crime we should spare no expense. But the truth is the crime rate has gone down in Alaska and yet the administration is proposing quadrupling the size of the crime lab. In fact the actual number of criminal cases submitted to the Alaska crime lab is roughly the same as it was fifteen years ago. Meanwhile, the number of DNA cases submitted to the Alaska crime laboratory has declined each of the past three fiscal years. The total for FY2009 was less than half of what was submitted in FY2006 according to a report from the Alaska Policy Forum.

It is important to note the two previous directors of the Alaska crime lab have spoken out on the new facility saying it is excessive, too big, and too expensive.

Why is Alaska's crime lab so expensive compared to others in the country? Simply put, the administration spared no expense. The design includes three separate conference rooms, sixteen bathrooms and thirteen private offices. Remember the lab only has 40 employees.

The building will be adorned with more than one million dollars of charcoal black granite. It offers three fully glassed in stairwells.

And there is the landscaping. The crime lab sits on an oversized 15.5 acre park-like site and it is landscaped with 275 trees and bushes that cost more than a half million dollars. That's right, a half million dollars worth of landscaping for a lab. And even through the lab only has 40 employees, the lavishly landscaped grounds also feature several picnic tables and benches.

This project is eerily similar to the 50 million dollar Alaska seafood plant built in the late 90's. It was oversized, too expensive, and a total waste of state resources.

The crime lab debacle was slipped into the capital budget just minutes before the end of session and most legislators seemed uninterested in digging deep and learning the truth about the project. Governor Sean Parnell could still veto it but this has been a pet project for the administration from the beginning.

And then there is builder Jerry Neeser. Neeser worked the halls of Juneau this past session lobbying for the building of the crime lab. The project manager for the state admitted on my broadcast yesterday that Neeser has been in on the design of the crime lab from the beginning.

The questions the Parnell administration must now answer are the following. Was this project put out to bid? Why was Neeser in on the design from the beginning? How much does Neeser stand to make from this project? Why are we spending so much for our crime lab compared to the rest of the nation? Why do we need to quadruple the size of the crime lab when caseloads have not increased? I'll submit the questions and let you know the answers today during my radio show at 2pm.

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