GVF&R Budget, Reduced Highway Maintenance at Quarterly Meeting
By John Pfeifer
Girdwood Volunteer Fire & Rescue was a major topic of discussion at a joint meeting of the Girdwood Board of Supervisors and Municipality of Anchorage quarterly meeting on October 28th. Supervisors discussed the fire department’s annual budget and how the state’s plan to reduce road maintenance this winter might affect emergency response and even some Girdwood residents’ daily commute to Anchorage.
Girdwood Board of Supervisors (GBOS) approved the fire department’s 2020 budget in September, but this meeting was the board’s chance to argue for additional funding from the Municipality of Anchorage for Emergency Medical Services (EMS).
“As always, this is a big topic for us,” said GBOS Co-Chair Mike Edgington. “During contract negotiations we kind of come up with a number that the Chief feels is pretty close to what we spend, and we spend about half of our fire budget on EMS,” Edgington said. But, in recent years, Girdwood Volunteer Fire and Rescue (GVF&R) has not been receiving adequate funding from the municipality to cover those costs. The shortfall this year is already approaching $100,000.
Funding for GVF&R comes from two different sources. The firefighting side of the budget is funded by property taxes on owners inside the Girdwood Valley Fire Service Area (GVFSA). EMS funding comes from area-wide property taxes that are levied on all property owners throughout the Municipality of Anchorage. The actual amount paid to Girdwood for EMS is determined by a contract between the Anchorage Fire Department and Girdwood Fire and Rescue, Inc., the non-profit corporation that runs the Girdwood fire department. The current contract was signed in 2000 and has no expiration date. EMS funding has not changed in 19 years, even though the cost of providing those services has increased.
“I agree, this is a big mess,” said Bill Falsey, Anchorage Municipal Manager. Right now, the area-wide tax set aside for Girdwood EMS comprises one-third of the fire department funding, while the local, service-area taxes collected for firefighting make up about two-thirds. Falsey said it should be the other way around.
“The Anchorage Fire Department has its tax levy upside-down too,” Falsey said. “We really should be about two-thirds area-wide EMS and one-third fire.”
“One answer could be, alright, we’ll just fix that,” he said. Keep overall taxes the same but allocate one-third to firefighting and two-thirds to EMS. “That would fix the problem for Anchorage but it has an outside effect on Chugiak and Girdwood.” Overall property taxes in the Anchorage bowl would go down, but taxes in Girdwood and Chugiak would go up. “That’s why this is such an intrinsically tricky thing to figure out,” Halsey said.
Complicating matters is the fact that Girdwood doesn’t just provide EMS within GVFSA, as it is required by its contract with Anchorage to provide EMS along the Seward Highway, both to the north and to the south, all the way to Ingram Creek at MP 75.
Girdwood Fire Chief Michelle Weston had a suggestion for the meeting: “One of the things we thought, is in the future, maybe there could be a service area on the highway, just like there’s a police and fire service area.”
But the other fire chief in the room, Anchorage Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick said that idea wouldn’t work. “The crux of the problem is, EMS is already area-wide, so there’s no service area to create.” Under state law, emergency services are an area-wide function, but firefighting is a service-area function.
In the end, the final amount for Girdwood EMS will be determined by the new contract, and it probably won’t be finalized until next year, because—at the same meeting—Anchorage Fire Chief Hettrick announced that she has put the current contract negotiations on hold.
“Recently, the municipal audit department came down and did a financial audit for the Girdwood Fire Department, and we found some things that are very concerning,” Hattrick explained. “I’m requesting that we suspend the contract negotiations until we can see the results of the audit and the changes that are made based on those results and recommendations,’’ she said.
Girdwood Fire Chief Weston admits there are some accounting issues they need to sort out. “I asked for the audit a year-and-a-half ago, and it came onto the audit schedule for 2019. So, I did sort of bring this on, trying to make sure our financial house is in order,” Weston said.
Hattrick said, “We just want to make sure that she has good information so that when we are in contract negotiations, we actually know what the right amounts are and we really know what the budget is based on.”
On a subject not directly related to the budget but important to emergency services, there was also discussion at the meeting about the State of Alaska’s decision to reduce winter maintenance on the Seward Highway. In September, the Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities (DOT&PF) announced the closure of the Silver Tip Maintenance Station, located at the junction of the Seward and Hope Highways.
In the past, operators from Silver Tip covered the Seward Highway through Turnagain Pass. Those duties will now be split between Girdwood Maintenance station and Crown Point station, just south of Moose Pass. DOT&PF normally won’t provide snow removal in Turnagain Pass and on the Hope Road between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m., according to a DOT&PF press release.
Under its joint-services agreement with the Kenai Peninsula Borough, Girdwood Fire and Rescue normally provides EMS and rescue services beyond Ingram Creek and well into Turnagain Pass, but that could change, according to Girdwood Chief Weston.
“We’re taking the position that we’re not going into any unmaintained area of the highway at night because we can’t guarantee our safety,” Weston said.
But, the reductions won’t just affect Turnagain Pass. They will also affect winter maintenance between Girdwood and Anchorage.
“My understanding is that Girdwood (DOT&PF crews) used to plow from Girdwood north,” explained Anchorage Fire Chief Hattrick. “In the new world, where Silvertip doesn’t exist, Girdwood would only go south.” In years past, Girdwood crews plowed north from Girdwood to Indian Road, while DOT&PF crews from Anchorage covered the road between Anchorage and Indian.
“In Girdwood, you won’t get any northbound plowing until that Anchorage crew has made it all the way down,” Hattrick said.
Girdwood Chief Weston summed it up, “It’s all bad, in many ways.”