Residents of a remote community south of Seward who have seen avalanches and severe weather produce conditions that could prevent rescue and fire equipment from reaching them in time to save life and property won approval Tuesday to provide those services for themselves through a new service area.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted 7-1 to approve Ordinance 2003-03 creating the Lowell Point Emergency Service Area. Borough Mayor Dale Bagley will appoint the first five-member board of directors, which will hold office until the election of new board members in 2005.
A special by-mail election scheduled for June 10 will seek resident approval of the exercise of powers necessary to provide fire and emergency medical services within the Lowell Point Emergency Service Area.
Only assembly member Chris Moss of Homer voted against formation of the service area. He said the service area would serve only about 100 residents and that once created, it would leave the borough without the option of improving efficiency by combining service areas at a later date without a vote of the residents.
"I really respect what the folks at Lowell Point are doing. I think it is always important to take these things into your own hands. I just have serious concerns of creating a service area that has a hundred people in it," Moss said.
Moss said he'd done some research and learned that Fairbanks has some 120 service areas.
"To me that bogs down government to a great extent. We need to combine things to make it more efficient," he said.
He noted that nothing in the discussion appeared to show that adding Lowell Point to the Bear Creak service area had been considered.
Moss also said that only 20 percent of the people in the Seward area voted in the last election and he worried that some similar small percentage would be deciding issues for the service area.
Assembly member Ron Long of Seward said the residents and the Lowell Point Community Council had worked long and hard to reach a point where they were ready to form a service area and should be allowed to do so. He said the public response to a survey regarding formation of the service area indicated participation in service area affairs would be high.
The area, he said, had experienced three major structural fires in the past few years, and that those events helped motivate residents to form their own fire department.
Long pointed out that Lowell Point is "virtually an island" that is bordered to the north by a home rule city, Seward, to the east by water, to the west by mountains and to the south by park land. He also noted Lowell Point has cooperative agreements in place with Seward and Bear Creek.
But "neither of them would be able to provide a response in the event of one of several things that could happen," Long said, referring to such things as road closures due to avalanche. Other ways of providing services had been considered, he said, but formation of the service area was the best avenue for assuring local fire and emergency protections.
The Lowell Point Volunteer Fire Rescue Department is fully trained and registered with the state fire marshal's office. The department will be fully operational in May. Recent public comment has supported formation of the service area, he said.
Administrative aide Ed Oberts said the assembly already had approved money for a building, tapping the Spruce Bark Beetle Fund. Other grants have been secured or are in the works for the department.
"They already have their fire truck in place," he said.
The Lowell Point department is renting the truck from the Bear Creek Fire Department.
At one point, discussion centered on the mill rate service area property owners would pay. Language in the ordinance said no mill levy in excess of 1.75 mills would be levied unless approved by a majority of the service area voters. That requirement, however, runs counter to state law, which gives the assembly the power to determine the rate at which property owners will be taxed.
Leaving the language intact, Moss said, could be misleading, given that the law does not empower the residents to determine by vote how much they would be taxed. If financial circumstances should require it, the assembly is empowered to raise the mill levy to any level necessary to keep the service area solvent.
Moss wanted to excise any reference to the mill levy. However, compromise language left the reference to 1.75 mills but indicated that no mill levy increase beyond that amount would be enacted except during the assembly's annual borough budget process.
The assembly indicated it may address similar conflicting language existing in other service area ordinances and may consider legislation to clarify that mill levy increases are the purview of the assembly and cannot be blocked simply by a vote of service area residents.
Oberts said the 1.75 mills, which would raise around $11,000 a year, would be an adequate amount from property taxes to meet immediate operational needs, but that a more detailed analysis of those needs would be forthcoming.
In other business, the assembly,
Accepted and appropriated a U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant of $399,659 for the Cook Inlet Salmon Branding Project.
Approved a negotiated agreement with the Alaska Municipal League Joint Insurance Association that requires the borough to pay AML $216,915 for liability and property insurance through the end of this fiscal year. The payment became necessary when rapidly rising insurance rates following the Sept. 11 disaster forced the insurance program into the red as it continued to meet its obligations to the borough.
Appropriated $389,800 to Central Peninsula General Hospital for remodeling and reallocation of hospital spaces.
Passed Ordinance 2003-04, confirming the assessment roll for the K-B Subdivision Road Improvement Assessment District.
Passed Ordinance 2003-05, returning the borough to the use of written meeting minutes and abandoning use of magnetic tape as the official records medium. It was determined that tape recordings deteriorate much faster than paper and also take up too much space.
Passed Ordinance 2003-08, approving a new operating agreement with South Peninsula Hospital Inc.
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