LEPC could lose funds

Posted: Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Unless state lawmakers act during the next session, state funding vital for covering core functions of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Local Emergency Planning Committee could disappear, according to a state spill response official.

The peninsula LEPC helps develop emergency plans to prepare and respond to chemical emergencies. Those plans are periodically tested and updated.

The reason has to do with the way the state's fiscal year 2004 budget was written, specifically, that it cut off access to funding normally available for grants to the state's 19 LEPCs and to the Alaska State Emergency Response Commission.

The net result was the Kenai Peninsula Borough LEPC got less than expected. Further, unless the Legislature acts, there might be no grant money available in the fiscal year 2005 budget, according to Larry Dietrick, director of the Alaska Division of Spill Preven-tion and Response, a division of the Alaska Department of Environ-mental Conservation.

At its Nov. 18 meeting, the borough assembly appropriated a $17,900 state grant to cover certain LEPC operating expenses for fiscal year 2004. That represented the revised, smaller grant from the state. The borough's LEPC had received $25,000 in fiscal year 2003.

If the Legislature does not restore funding, it is at least possible that the borough assembly would be asked to consider stepping in with borough funds, said David Gibbs, emergency manager for the Kenai Peninsula Borough, who is a borough representative on the Kenai Peninsula Local Emer-gency Planning Committee.

"From an LEPC perspective, we certainly think the state has a responsibility to fund the LEPC," Gibbs said. "With all the (federal) money coming from Homeland Security, to drop the ball on most local emergency planning doesn't seem to make sense to us."

How funding for grants was chopped has to do with a change in a common procedure used by lawmakers as they approach the juncture between two budget cycles.

Each year, grants to fund LEPC operating expenses come from the Oil and Hazardous Substance Release Prevention and Response Fund, also known as the "470 Fund," which takes in revenue from a surcharge on each barrel of oil produced in Alaska. By law, the maximum amount available annually as grants to the 19 LEPCs is equal to 3 percent of the projected fund balance. As that fund has slowly declined, so has the size of grants appropriated from it, so declining state aid was not unexpected.

However, the fiscal year 2004 budget, which kicked in July 1, added a new and unanticipated twist to the budgets of the LEPCs.

When a fiscal year ends, lapsing funds typically are "swept" into the Constitutional Budget Reserve. So-called "reverse-the-sweep" language is then included in the next budget restoring those funds to various departments, DEC included.

This year, that did not happen, Gibbs said.

"Now the (state) Office of Man-agement and Budget is trying to find out how the lack of appropriations adversely affected those (eight) departments in this case, DEC," Gibbs said.

OMB is drafting legislation for the 2004 legislative session to reverse the sweep, according to Director Cheryl Frasca. Final decisions about which accounts would be proposed for a reverse sweep are yet to be finalized.

"Our intention, at a minimum, is to request a reversal that restores the balances up to the level appropriated by the Legislature," Frasca said Monday.

Rep. Mike Chenault said Mon-day he likely would support reversing the sweep.

"For some reason that (reverse language) was in a three-quarters-vote bill last year," he said. "It didn't pass. That's why it wasn't in (the new budget).

"My understanding is that language will show back up in a supplemental this year. My guess right now is, if my understanding is right, I would be supporting it. I don't want to see the borough be responsible for extra funding."

On that score, Assembly Presi-dent Pete Sprague said the basic issue was whether the borough would be required to step in and fill state funding vacancies.

"That's is one we are facing on a lot of fronts right now," he said. "We'd have to see the dollar amount and the justification for it. We are trying to keep a line on spending."

In a July memo to Dave Leibers-bach, director of the state Division of Emergency Services, spill prevention director Dietrick explained that the lack of reversal language had meant a 50-percent reduction in the initial funding amounts for "Reimbursable Service Agree-ments" through which Alaska's LEPC activities are funded.

"Unless sufficient funds are restored to the Prevention Account by the Legislature in a supplemental appropriation during fiscal year 2004, no further funding for these RSAs will be possible, and we will be unable to enter into RSAs for these services in future years," Dietrick said in the memo.

If lawmakers pass a supplemental spending plan restoring the funds, the division intends to amend RSA funding to the full amount requested for FY04, and funding in FY05 would be considered, Dietrick said.

The $17,900 state grant appropriated to the peninsula LEPC last week was considered baseline funding meant to cover core committee activities as envisioned by the federal Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act.

Those activities include support services, such as personnel, travel, postage, phone and banking charges; contractual services, such as coordinator services, space rental, service agreements for equipment and the like; various office supplies; and capital equipment in other words, the critical expenditures necessary for the LEPC to function.

Federal law requires the public be informed about the use of toxic chemicals by federal, state and local governments and industries. The 19 LEPCs around the state help meet that requirement.

Gibbs said the LEPC, which is made up of representatives of public safety agencies, medical facilities, petrochemical industries, emergency response programs, government bodies, transportation companies, and the general public, meets periodically to discuss and coordinate emergency planning activities. The reduction in state funding is a critical matter.

"The indication we are getting is it may go away altogether," Gibbs said. "We could lose a forum of disaster planning. The LEPC does a lot of work, including public education about disasters."

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