Proposition 2: Fire service area proposed near Homer

Posted: Thursday, September 28, 2000

Voters living in the area surrounding Homer and Kachemak City will decide whether to create a fire service area independent of Homer.

The proposed territory to be covered by the Greater Kachemak Volunteer Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area would stretch from near the mouth of Kachemak Bay to north of Caribou Lake, leaving out Kachemak City and Homer. Its northern boundary would meet the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service and Central Peninsula Emergency Medical Service areas.

The ordinance creating the service area provides for an appointed board to serve until a new five-member board could be elected in October of next year. Board members then would be elected to one-, two- or three-year terms in order to create a staggered election schedule in the future. After that, all elections would be for three-year terms.

A provision in the ordinance states that no mill levy in excess of 1.75 mills -- $175 in annual property taxes per $100,000 of real property -- shall be levied on the area unless an increase is approved by a majority of voters. However, the cap is not firm, according to Borough Attorney Colette Thompson. She said last month that state statute gives the assembly the authority to set the mill rate whenever members deem it necessary to cover costs.

Meanwhile, borough finance officials have said 1.75 mills may not support the service area.

The move to create a service area grew out of Homer's ongoing attempt to annex more than 25 square miles of surrounding territory. The proposed service area is much larger than the region of annexation.

Service area proponents say it is time to provide for fire and ambulance service beyond that offered by Homer.

"It is the best way to have local representation in terms of what happens," said Pete Roberts, an annexation opponent.

Homer, he said, is reviewing fees and subscription rates it could charge noncity users of its fire and ambulance services.

"One way or another, people will be charged for it," he said. "Why not have some hand in it and some control over how it is administered and managed? And, you get to vote," he said.

Absent from discussion of the service area over the past couple of months was any vocal opposition, though the reality of increased taxes is likely to have some effect on the election. A majority is all that is required to pass the ballot measure.

But increased taxes aren't the only problem facing a new service area. The proposed mill levy will not provide much in the way of money for capital equipment, at least not right away. Buying equipment and housing it likely would require state and federal grants. Outfitting a viable fire and ambulance service capable of responding over such a wide area will be costly, according to local fire department officials.

One option for the Greater Kachemak service area would be to contract with the Homer Volunteer Fire Department for use of its equipment, while supplementing that with equipment of its own. City officials, however, have not seen any formal proposal.

Estimates earlier this summer suggested it would take at least 1 mill of tax revenue from the area just to cover costs already borne by the city in responding to fires and medical emergencies beyond its borders.

Some proponents have said a contractual arrangement between the service area and the city is the most prudent approach while the new fire service area gets on its feet. Others have expressed adamant opposition to any connection to the city.

Anti-annexation forces have argued that Homer appears ready to tax annexed residents for a variety of services it won't be able to deliver for years, primarily because of distance and accessibility. The same conditions could face taxpayers in a new service area, however.

The service area also contains large portions with little or no access by roads, complicating the delivery of fire and emergency services.

Unlike Homer, however, the fire service area could not create differential tax zones to account for those differences.

Hal Spence is a reporter for the Homer News.

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