In this December 2016 photo, cars wend their way northward along the Seward Highway near Hope, Alaska. In response to difficulties with emergency response during accidents on the highway corridor, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is working on the logistics for a service area specifically to provide emergency services to the approximately 113 miles of highway in the borough east of Cooper Landing. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

In this December 2016 photo, cars wend their way northward along the Seward Highway near Hope, Alaska. In response to difficulties with emergency response during accidents on the highway corridor, the Kenai Peninsula Borough is working on the logistics for a service area specifically to provide emergency services to the approximately 113 miles of highway in the borough east of Cooper Landing. (Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion, file)

Assembly introduces ordinance for highway service area budget

A few more of the blanks are being filled in for the East Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area, including a proposed budget.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly introduced an ordinance that would appropriate a total of $350,000 for the service area’s fund balance, $232,493 of which would be appropriated for fiscal year 2018 operations. The funds would go to support personnel, insurance, equipment, utilities and transportation, among other costs.

The service area is a pioneering project for the borough. Unlike the other service areas in the borough, the East Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area doesn’t have any taxpayers within its boundaries, strictly confined to the highway, and there are no buildings or ambulances slated for purchase. Instead, the tentative plan is to use the funding to contract with the existing volunteer fire and emergency service departments in Cooper Landing, Moose Pass, and Hope, with Bear Creek Fire and Emergency Service Area and possibly with the Girdwood Fire Department.

The funds come out of the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s general fund but originate as Payment in Lieu of Taxes funds, which the federal government pays to the borough for the lands it owns in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest. Because there aren’t enough private parcels to pay into a mill levy to fund an emergency service department on the eastern peninsula, a traditional service area structure wouldn’t work to provide the service, according to a memo from Brandi Harbaugh, the acting finance director for the borough to the assembly.

“Using PILT funds presents a solution that allows the borough to exercise emergency service powers without requiring a significant overhaul of the budgets of the long-standing service areas in the borough,” the memo states.

The problem the East Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area seeks to solve is simulataneously a simple and complex one — the need for emergency services on the long stretches of nearly empty highway between Turnagain Arm and Seward or Cooper Landing is obvious, but overcoming the legal and financial barriers to provide that service has been challenging. The borough’s Healthcare Task Force identified the lack of areawide emergency services as a key issue in the borough, and a subcommittee formed specifically to address it.

That committee proposed the idea of the corridor service area, which the assembly approved in May after the Legislature approved a bill allowing second-class boroughs to form service areas. The five-member appointed service area board began meeting over the summer and came up with the initial budget as well as drafting ideas for how services would be provided.

“The idea was getting this on the road,” said Stormy Brown, the borough’s human resources director who also served on the Healthcare Task Force’s emergency services subcommittee. “They’re continuing to plan as if everything is moving forward. Most of it is about how to coordinate their services … the group is very engaged. They’re hour and a half, two-hour meetings where they’re planning for spring.”

One of the central issues is the sheer length of the highway to be included — about 113 miles of road total, including the stretch between Ingram Creek and the Seward Highway-Sterling Highway junction, the section between the junction and Bear Creek and the highway west of the junction to the current boundary with the Central Emergency Service Area at approximately Mile 59 of the Sterling Highway.

The service area board broke up the highway into five manageable sections — one from Mile 5 of the Seward Highway to the junction, one from the junction to Mile 55, one from Mile 55–75, one for the approximately 16 miles of the Hope Highway and one from the junction to the CES boundary, said board chair Curt Jacobson, who has served on the board and in the Moose Pass Volunteer Fire Department.

The board identified three primary services to provide: first response, rescue and extrication and transportation, he said. Though the area itself is strictly the highway, if a car flips off the Canyon Creek bridge near Hope, the responders would be able to take care of it.

“We’ve identified (the service area’s responsibility) as pretty much any incident that originates on the highway,” he said.

The contractors would be responsible for their sections of highway, which they’re already responding to, Jacobson said. However, because they’re volunteer organizations, they’re not technically obliged to respond, and in the case of Moose Pass, the situation becomes stickier if several of the volunteers have responded to an accident in Turnagain Pass, jumped on Cooper Landing Emergency Services’ ambulance to take a patient to Soldotna, and then a fire breaks out in Moose Pass with only one or two volunteers left in the station.

Because Moose Pass Volunteer Fire Department is technically a subscription base, with members paying an annual fee, it’s hard to answer when the department can’t adequately respond to an emergency in its own community because personnel are responding to accidents miles away, Jacobson said. The alternative, though, is not to respond to calls for help in the more desolate parts of the eastern peninsula.

“We try to (respond), but it’s not really anybody’s ‘responsibility’ to make sure you’re taken care of (on parts of the highway),” Jacobson said.

Cooper Landing Emergency Services, Moose Pass Volunteer Fire Department and Hope/Sunrise Emergency Services have all struggled with staffing and equipment, making it difficult to transport patients to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. To help provide services, they’ve historically signed a mutual aid agreement with Central Emergency Services, which really translates to a one-way assistance where CES is often called out of its service area to respond on the eastern peninsula. Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said in the assembly’s finance committee meeting Tuesday this doesn’t follow a “mutual” aid agreement and creating the East Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area is a more cost-effective and efficient means of delivering service. When Cooper Landing Emergency Service began talking about drawing back from delivering service on the highway at all, the borough began discussing how to solve the problem to avoid having a section of highway that had no service at all, he said.

“That is something that somebody had to step in to that void and meet that responsibility,” he said. “Certainly the state doesn’t have the resources to do it. And it seemed to me that this was a cost-effective means of meeting a service need in an area that really is the corridor that was going to lack coverage.

The plan is to contract with the existing entities, though it is possible that a third party could bid on the contract for the services and provide them instead, Navarre said. Jacobson said for the relatively small budget provided for the service area — by contrast, Nikiski Fire Service Area spent about $4.2 million in 2016 — it likely wouldn’t attract many bidders.

The borough assembly will discuss the budget for the service area again at its Sept. 19 meeting in Homer.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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