Seldovia faces decision on emergency services

Posted: Wednesday, October 16, 2002

Facing a chronic budget crunch, city officials in Seldovia are exploring formation of service areas that could help provide new revenue to pay for fire, medical emergency and police services extended beyond the city limits.

The city's budget woes are having an impact on the ability of the police department to function, Seldovia Police Chief Andy Anderson said. Roughly 20 to 25 percent of the incidents to which they respond are outside city limits.

The city's $360,000 general fund budget includes about $106,000 for police. The state compensates the department for aiding Alaska State Troopers and for services rendered outside the city under terms of a special services contract.

But that contract only pays Seldovia about $16,700 a year, a figure that hasn't changed since 1994, Anderson said.

"That doesn't take in the hours and patrols," he said.

Meanwhile, cost cutting by the city has eliminated a police clerical position and made a deputy's position a half-time job during the winter.

That job is not even filled at this point, Anderson said, and he wonders who would take such a job and still be able to live in Seldovia during the winter.

City Manager Ken Weaver said the city also spends about $45,000 a year on the Seldovia Ambulance and Fire Department, the city arm of fire and emergency services. It handles administration, insurance, workers compensation and capital costs such as trucks, buildings and utilities. The city also provides a part-time fire administrator position for 15 hours per week.

A volunteer nonprofit called Seldovia Volunteer Fire and Rescue handles fire fighting and other functions, according to Sue Hecks, who until this week was mayor of Seldovia.

Hecks said tight city budgets are a constant when it comes to keeping the department functioning.

"All equipment purchases, supplies and training funds are raised by selling pull-tabs and other fund-raising efforts and also small grants," she said.

Until recently, the Seldovia Village Tribe provided an EMS coordinator, but that position currently is empty.

"It's a collective process that makes this work," Hecks said. "Volunteers spend an inordinate amount of time making this happen. Without them, we have nothing."

Roughly 8 percent of the fire and EMS calls in 2000 were outside the city. The service averages about 20,000 volunteer hours a year, Hecks said.

Weaver said the city is providing services to the outlying area essentially for free. He said exploring the idea of a service area is a worthwhile exercise.

The Seldovia City Council has not gone as far as to petition the Kenai Peninsula Borough for a new service area, but members of the council did meet with borough officials late last month to go over the procedures necessary to get that ball rolling.

"Being a small town, there's always some type of budget crunch or shortage," said council member Walter McInnes.

Seldovia hopes to find a way for noncity residents to share the costs, he said.

"We are trying to come up with a more equitable, reasonable and fair system for paying for those services," McInnes said.

A service area that raised revenue to pay for such services through a property tax levy would be one way, he said.

Hecks acknowledged that the city's struggling budget was the impetus behind exploring options such as service areas. She and members of the council met with borough attorney Colette Thompson and Ed Oberts, assistant to Mayor Dale Bagley, Sept. 25 in Seldovia and discussed aspects of service area formation.

The council, however, deferred any action until the new mayor and new council members were seated after the Oct. 1 election.

Hecks said she doesn't know at this point whether residents of the city or the wider area would approve a service area.

"Of the folks that came to the public meeting from out the road (beyond city limits), the majority were not in favor initially," Hecks said. "I don't know where it will go. My intent was to make it as public a process as possible."

Former council member Mike Webber, a five-year veteran of Seldovia Volunteer Fire and Rescue, said Seldovia is not unlike rural communities across the nation. It's residents respond to emergencies without regard to political boundaries.

"But we're face to face with the reality of the cost," he said.

Just this week, the fire service took possession of a brand new ambulance, and by next spring will have a new fire truck. That should help with the department's maintenance budget, but it still costs dollars to make fire and ambulance calls outside the city. What is needed is a way to spread the cost of the city services to the broader community that uses them, Webber said.

Local politics will likely play a part in any decision on a service area, entities typically born amid controversy. Webber said Seldovia and the Seldovia Village Tribe have, at times, been on opposite sides of policy and political questions. He doesn't know if they will be on the service area question.

"I like to think that reality on both sides will win the day and we'll have equitable cost-sharing and a service area with expanding services," he said.

Webber said there are examples of successful cooperation between the tribe and city that are good models, including the Seldovia Arts Council and the Parent Advisory Council for Susan B. English School.

The Seldovia Village Tribe, however, also is looking at ways to provide fire and ambulance services beyond city limits.

"Seldovia Village starts one mile outside city limits," said Crystal Collier, executive director of the Seldovia Village Tribe. "A lot of tribal member live out there."

Barabara Subdivision is on tribal land three miles from the city.

"The city has always provided service," Collier said. "We provided an EMS coordinator position."

But that person recently resigned and moved to Sitka. Now the village tribe is considering revamping that position and hiring someone to explore tribal options for delivering fire and ambulance services to outlying areas on its own.

"We do have responsibilities out there that we haven't addressed as well as we should," Collier said.

Collier said she understood why the city is exploring such things as service areas. Budget woes were the genesis of the move, she said. Whether the future holds separate services provided by the city and the tribe, or some kind of cooperative arrangement or even a service area including everyone remains to be seen, she said.

But she pointed out that volunteers for Seldovia Volunteer Fire and Rescue live both inside and outside city limits. Whatever happens, she does not envision splitting those volunteers.

"We are looking at a total sharing thing," she said.

Thompson said to get the service area ball rolling, Seldovia would attempt to get 15 percent of the voters who cast ballots in the last election to sign a petition and submit it to the borough clerk's office.

The clerk then would certify the signatures and send the petition on to the mayor's office where the proposed service area would be analyzed, determining such things as final boundaries, assessed value, the need for service, estimated costs and total population.

Then it would go to the assembly, which would hold a public hearing inside the proposed service area. If the assembly decided to proceed, an ordinance creating the service area would be enacted placing the final decision before the voters in the service area.

Thompson also said it was possible to proceed without a hearing. Any assembly member could offer an ordinance to put the issue to the voters without a hearing, but she considered that highly unlikely.

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