Mayor proposes reorganization of public safety departments

The Kenai Peninsula Borough administration is working on a plan to reshuffle its various public safety departments.

Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce has proposed an ordinance to change the structure of the borough’s Office of Emergency Management to be overseen by a senior manager, who would report to a borough public safety director. That director would report directly to the mayor, as would the fire chiefs and managers of the other public safety agencies — including Central Emergency Services and Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area — that provide services to specific areas of the borough.

The goal is to better network the public safety providers in the borough, Pierce said at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s meeting Tuesday.

“This is an idea that previous mayors have had in the past,” he said. “It’s trying to formalize it and bring it to a head. I’ve mentioned to you before that we have developed into a borough of islands. … There’s a lot of responsibility, there’s a lot of infrastructure, there’s a lot of expectation as far as delivery of services, and when it comes to public safety, I think there’s been a number of things that other mayors have tried to address along the way as well.”

The role of Emergency Management Director has been empty since Jan. 1, when former manager Scott Walden resigned. The department handles borough-wide emergencies, such as the earthquake that struck southwest of Kodiak Island in January and triggered a tsunami alert in Homer and Seward. The staff also develops borough and interjurisdictional disaster response and recovery plans and coordinates responses.

Currently, Office of Emergency Management Program Director Dan Nelson is managing the department on an interim basis. Restructuring the public safety programs would help create backup for the director or senior manager in case that person were away or the position were vacant, said James Baisden, the fire chief for Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area. Baisden is also serving as the temporary designee of the mayor in the public safety director position and helping with the planning for the new Eastern Peninsula Highway Emergency Service Area.

He said the change would formalize the way the departments have worked in the past few years.

“One of the goals … he’s going to get help in there, but if Dan’s not here, the kind of things that we may fumble through right now would be different,” he said. “He would be able to check (them) off real quick. We’ve got that identified as an issue, that’s where we’re at right now but this organizational change will help us do that a little quicker.”

Because it is a second-class borough, the Kenai Peninsula Borough does not provide centralized public safety services. Instead, they are authorized by the voters of specific areas and paid for through property taxes collected by the borough and distributed to service areas. The service areas have some level of autonomy, but their boards are ultimately advisory to the assembly and the service area employees are employees of the borough.

As the borough’s population has grown, the demand for services has increased and the service areas have multiplied. The borough now has more than a dozen of them, seven of which relate to public safety. Pierce described them as individual “islands” that should be better linked.

One of the major points he heard during the election cycle last year, which has become a priority for his administration, is providing better public safety services, he said.

“We continue to grow,” Pierce said. “Populations will continue to grow. The demands on services will continue to grow, and you really do need a good, strong organizational structure than can respond to those needs.”

Kenai Peninsula Borough Human Resources Director Stormy Brown told the assembly the department had drafted a position description for the senior manager of the department, which isn’t much different than the director’s role, but removed the executive functions.

Assembly members signaled support for the move, though assembly member Kelly Cooper said she wanted more information before committing to supporting it. Assembly member Hal Smalley also requested a full detail of cost for the reorganized structure, which Pierce said he would provide.

“I think that this part of the OEM is a great idea,” Cooper said. “… I appreciate all the work that OEM is doing, but it’s really hard for me to do this piecemeal, and I would sure encourage having that temporary structure information sooner rather than later.”

The assembly is set to consider the ordinance reorganizing the department at its April 3 meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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