The question of what kind of fire and emergency medical response rural residents in Anchor Point and Ninilchik want is before voters on the southern Kenai Peninsula in the Oct. 6 election.
Proposition 1 on the Kenai Peninsula Borough ballot asks voters in Ninilchik and Anchor Point whether they want to create a combined Western Emergency Service Area, which would create one large area covering both communities and the space in between. A “yes” vote will create the new, combined service area. A “no” vote keeps things at the status quo.
Just what is the status quo? In Anchor Point, residents pay taxes to have an official fire and EMS response service area under the borough. A mill rate is levied on property taxes, and it pays for their chief, full-time staff members, fire apparatus, and equipment. The Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area also relies on volunteer firefighters and medics. However, their paid, full-time staff are guaranteed to be on the clock and respond to emergencies.
In Ninilchik, things look a little different. For years the small fishing community has relied on an almost completely volunteer Fire and EMS department, Ninilchik Emergency Services, which is run by a nonprofit organization and its board of directors. It’s the only fire and EMS service area left on the peninsula that is not an official, tax payer-supported service area under the borough.
Chief David Bear is the department’s only paid staff member — the rest, including the assistant chief, are volunteers. The nonprofit overseeing the department goes after state and federal grants to purchase equipment and upkeep vehicles. The nonprofit also solicits donations from the community, and residents have long had the option to become donating “members.”
That system, for better or worse, has been in place without much push back or consternation from the Ninilchik community for years. That is, until the previous Ninilchik Emergency Services board of directors removed Bear from the payroll and let go Assistant Chief Grace Huhndorf from her volunteer position in February, causing immediate outcry and confusion among residents. The board had also originally sought to shut down the department for a number of days, which would have interrupted emergency responses, but that did not end up happening.
The previous board said it was part of a restructuring move intended to bring the department in line with requirements of a federal grant the department had applied for. The board planned to transition the department into an equal opportunity employer, which offered paid positions, they said.
A tense, emotionally charged town hall was quickly convened, at which a borough representative pointed out to the crowd that Ninilchik residents can always vote to create an established service area under the borough to have guaranteed, consistent response coverage in the future.
Within a matter of days, the previous board of directors for Ninilchik Emergency Services stepped down and were replaced by a new board. Bear and Huhndorf were reinstated.
But the question of what to do to avoid a scare like that in the future still remained.
The community of Ninilchik voted a few decades ago on whether to establish a tax-supported fire and EMS service area, and the measure failed at that time. With enough interest from the community, borough staff members and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Brent Johnson started investigating the possibility of revisiting that question.
A work group was formed by the borough, and community members were appointed to it. That work group explored the different options available to Ninilchik. As Johnson puts it, there were three ways to go:
1) Keep Ninilchik Emergency Services as it was, overseen by a nonprofit and independent from the borough.
2) Create a contained fire and EMS service area just for the community of Ninilchik.
3) Create a combined service area that serves both Anchor Point and Ninilchik.
Jonhson said the work group found option No. 2 would come at a high price for Ninilchik residents.
“We found out that 5.75 mills would get them three staff members and a fund balance they would need,” he said.
Bear called that cost “almost prohibitively expensive.”
But, to create a combined service area serving both communities requires only 2.95 mills. The work group found that amount of property taxes, levied across both communities, will be enough to add five additional paid, full-time staff members, for a total of 10 for the entire service area.
You can read the full work group recommendations to the borough assembly here: kpb.us/assembly-clerk/active-task-forces/ninilchik-anchor-point-joint-service-area-work-group.
The assembly then approved an ordinance that put the proposition on the October election ballot.
According to the work group, the 2.95 mills that Ninilchik residents would start paying if the proposition passes will not only provide for 10 full time employees, but will ensure a sustainable fund balance and a reasonable capital plan. A mill rate of 2.95 is equal to $295 per $100,000 of taxable assessed value.
But, as Johnson points out, Ninilchik property owners would not be on the hook for this service area alone should it pass.
The proposed boundaries of the new service area, which stretch from the end of the Central Emergency Services southern boundary to the northern boundary of Kachemak Emergency Services, also stretch out into Cook Inlet. This was done on purpose, Johnson has said, to include oil and gas properties in the service area, which would also contribute to the mill rate.
Johnson and Bear both said some Ninilchik residents are worried what a combined service area would mean to the autonomy and identity of Ninilchik. Johnson said the work group used Central Emergency Services as a model. That service area, he pointed out, is one large area that covers multiple communities from Soldotna to Kasilof to Kalifornsky-Beach Road.
“The things that stand out to me are, CES as a kind of pattern of a fire service area that’s able to incorporate a lot of communities successfully,” Jonhson said. “And then the idea that we might as well have the oil companies contribute.”
Both Bear and Anchor Point Fire and EMS Chief Jon Marsh have publicly supported Proposition 1. They say it will be a boon to both departments. Combining forces, which includes sharing the same chief, assistant chief and mechanic, will save resources and manpower, they say.
Both departments already rely on each other through mutual aid agreements. If they were combined into the Western Emergency Service Area, the resources and crews could be sent to wherever in the service area it was needed.
Bear and Marsh said they’ve been hearing several concerns and questions about the proposition. Involvement in the work group meetings, which were open to the public, was not high, Marsh said. Both said interest seems to have dwindled and that the issue is only now coming back into the public consciousness.
“After the crisis passed, you know, the interest passed a little bit,” Bear said.
The most common concern the two chiefs are hearing is about the increase in taxes. The increase is minimal for Anchor Point residents, Marsh said — just one tenth of a mill.
“The other things I get are, ‘what’s going to happen with the nonprofit?’” Bear said.
The nonprofit that currently runs Ninilchik Emergency Services will not go away. It will be allowed to continue as long as the community wants — it just won’t be in charge of overseeing the service’s finances and operations. Most official borough service areas, including Anchor Point Fire and EMS, have accompanying nonprofit organizations that serve as an avenue for accepting community donations.
Bear said there is some resistance to combining with Anchor Point, and some Ninilchik residents would rather remain as a separate service area. Again, he brought up the higher cost that would place on the area’s property owners.
“And you wouldn’t get as much as you would get with the merger,” he said. “The merger is the best bang for your buck.”
Marsh said combining forces and resources will be beneficial to both communities.
“That’s the big thing is we can be more efficient as one than we can be individually,” Marsh said.
Marsh said there are some people in Anchor Point wondering how this larger service area would benefit them. They already pay taxes for a reliable service. It can seem like it only benefits Ninilchik, but that’s not the case, he said.
“It’s beneficial to Anchor Point because we rely on Ninilchik (Emergency Services), so if Ninilchik is stronger, we’re stronger,” Marsh said. “And if we work together as one, we’re more efficient, we’re stronger, we have more paid staff, which may encourage more volunteers.”
Marsh pointed out that, currently there’s a lot of “no man’s land” in between the two communities. The combined service area would include those middle areas and bring them more reliable service.
Both Bear and Johnson said that while a new property tax can be hard to swallow, the current model of asking the Ninilchik community for donations every year is not sustainable or necessarily fair. For the last several years, Bear said those donations have come from a small group of people who have been very generous. But the onus should not be on the few to support a service used by many, he and Johnson argue.
“It’s time for the community to take responsibility,” Johnson said.
The last time this question came before voters, the proposal was for Ninilchik to form its own service area, not combined with another other communities. A Ninilchik resident was on the assembly at the time, he said, and the measure still did not pass.
This time around, the proposition must be passed by a majority of voters in both Ninilchik and Anchor Point. If it passes in one community but fails in the other, the proposition will fail.
“Heck, it’s going to go however it goes,” Johnson said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.