Fire and emergency medical service areas around the borough are getting a boost of additional personnel after the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted to allocate CARES Act money to fund them during their Tuesday meeting.
Members of the assembly unanimously passed an amended resolution that will fund 13 additional staff members to be spread between Central Emergency Services, Nikiski Fire Service Area, Kachemak Emergency Services and Western Emergency Services. The original resolution, sponsored by Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce, called for 15 additional personnel, but it was amended during the meeting by assembly member Jesse Bjorkman to reduce the requested personnel for the Nikiski Fire Service Area from four to two. Assembly members Lane Chesley and Brent Hibbert voted against the amendment.
The cost to fund these 13 positions for the rest of Fiscal Year 2021 is $539,240, coming from available CARES Act money.
In addition to those two firefighter positions for Nikiski, CES will be able to hire three firefighters and one senior captain, KESA will be able to hire two firefighters and Western Emergency Services will hire four firefighters and one assistant chief. Western Emergency Services was already slated to get those positions through the ongoing process of its formation after Anchor Point and Ninilchik residents voted last year to combine their respective fire and EMS service areas into one. Part of that consolidation includes adding five paid positions, so that the entire service area has a total of 10.
The 13 new positions approved by the assembly for the other three service areas are only funded through the end of FY2021, which ends in June, using CARES Act money the borough received for personnel costs. The money is one-time funding, and the assembly will have to decide whether to keep and how to pay for the new positions during its regular FY2022 budget cycle. Western Emergency Services is being funded through the rest of FY2021 as part of its formation, and from then on has a mill rate that was set to accommodate 10 full-time staff members. Western Emergency Services will also absorb the fund balance of Anchor Point’s fire service area upon its formation.
The boards governing CES, the Nikiski Fire Service Area and KESA all recently requested additional personnel to handle increased call volume, according to a memo from Pierce to the assembly.
“The requests are based upon a systemic surge in call runs and other emergency service needs,” Pierce wrote.
CES Chief Roy Browning said his department has been requesting these four positions for some time after losing them due to budget constraints six years ago. For the central peninsula department, the increased personnel will be used to staff its Funny River station, which Browning said currently has only one staff member. The department has also had to shut down the ambulance at that station.
The combination of low staffing and no ambulance at Funny River makes responding to fires and medical calls in the department’s busier districts, K-Beach and Soldotna, more difficult and complicated. For example, Browning said staffing the Funny River station will keep Soldotna personnel from having to respond to that location, which in turn means other staff from places like Sterling won’t have to be pulled in to cover a large call in Soldotna if it were to happen around the same time.
Browning said, and also presented to the assembly, that CES has enough money in its own department operating budget to sustain its new positions through 2026. That does not include raising the current CES mill rate, which is 2.6.
Call numbers do continue to grow for CES, which had 2,545 calls in 2017 and 2,857 in 2020.
The same is true for Kachemak Emergency Services, whose calls are up from 165 in 2018 to 231 in 2020. Chief Bob Cicciarella noted that the department covers 214 square miles of service area. This results in man hours for responding to calls being very long.
For Nikiski, the issue isn’t as much increased call numbers as it is a need to staff the department’s newly completed third fire station, said Chief Bryan Crisp. As it stands, the department doesn’t have enough people to properly staff that station in addition to the first two.
“To be able to provide the service we just have to increase the full-time staff to be able to provide the services and man that station,” Crisp said.
Originally, the Nikiski department had requested a total of four positions. In a phone interview, Crisp said the governing board for the Nikiski Fire Service Area then reversed its vote and asked the borough assembly to hold off on funding it for any positions until the normal borough budget cycle.
Then, during Tuesday’s meeting, after some measure of confusion among assembly members, it was relayed that the Nikiski Fire Service Area actually wanted to still be funded for two positions. Bjorkman, who made that amendment, represents Nikiski on the assembly.
During the assembly’s discussion, member Willy Dunne expressed concern that the public may not have had enough time to weigh in on the new fire and EMS positions outside of those slated for Western Emergency Services, and said he thought their addition should have been addressed through the regular budget process.
“The debate should be about, are we willing to pay for that?” Dunne said. “Are the taxpayers willing to pay for that?” Dunne said.
Dunne acknowledged that CES will be able to pay for its additional positions through 2026 but said that’s not the case for every service area.
“It’s a different story down here on the southern peninsula,” he said. “The Kachemak Emergency Service Area board is looking at a roughly 19% increase in mill rate from 2.6 to 3.1 in order to cover the cost of these new positions. So I want us to go into this with our eyes open.”
Dunne had an amendment that would have allowed the five positions for Western Emergency Services to continue as planned but halt the positions for the other service areas until they could be dealt with during the borough budget process, but he ultimately did not bring it forward.
Assembly member Lane Chesley, who also represents the southern peninsula, acknowledged that the funds being used to authorize these 13 positions is one-time funding and that the risk is that the assembly doesn’t know for sure whether the positions will survive the FY2022 budget process. Later in the discussion, assembly member Brent Johnson pointed out that all the board meetings for the service areas are open to the public and advertised.
“I’m well aware that this is a significant amount of money,” Johnson said of the additional personnel. “I’m also aware that we’re able to take some advantage of some COVID money right now. The need is out there right now, for all of these service areas.”
During the comments of the mayor, Pierce said it was not the administration’s intention to surprise the assembly with the additional positions for CES, KESA and Nikiski.
“I want to just make it clear, the request for staffing has come through the boards, to the chiefs, to my chief of staff and then to me,” Pierce said. “… The effort of bringing it forward to you in advance … yeah I guess it could have been done … and it can still be done and we’ll still talk about it in the (regular) budget process.”
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.