Residents of Ninilchik and Anchor Point have a few more chances left to weigh in before the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly votes on an ordinance that would put the question of whether to form a joint fire and emergency medical service area for the two communities on the October election ballot.
Assembly members and borough staff held a public meeting to gather input via Zoom on Friday, and there is a second Zoom meeting scheduled for this Friday at 6 p.m.
The idea to create a joint service area covering both Ninilchik and Anchor Point is not new. The question was put to voters a few decades ago, but it was defeated at the polls. It’s come up again this year after the Ninilchik community was rocked by decisions made by the former Ninilchik Emergency Services Board of Directors. In Ninilchik, fire and EMS services are provided by a volunteer department run by a nonprofit.
The board overseeing that nonprofit fired the one paid staff member, Chief Dave Bear, along with volunteer Assistant Chief Grace Huhndorf, and had planned to shut down the station for a number of days. That didn’t end up happening and response to 911 calls continued, but outcry from the community led to each member of that board stepping down and being replaced within a matter of days. Huhndorf and Bear were reinstated.
At a community meeting where area residents demanded answers from the previous board, several people floated the idea of Ninilchik having its own official service area under the borough, funded by property taxes. This is the way other borough fire and EMS service areas function. Borough staff held a meeting to gather feedback on this idea in March. From there, a work group was formed to investigate the logistics of creating a new service area and assembly members and borough staff gathered feedback on that work group’s proposal during Friday’s Zoom meeting.
Once final changes to the plan are made, it will go before the assembly in the form of an ordinance sponsored by assembly member Brent Johnson. The ordinance will suggest putting forth a ballot proposition to form a combined service area for Ninilchik and Anchor Point, which would appear on the October election ballot. The public will have another opportunity to comment on the ordinance before the assembly votes on whether to approve it.
During Friday’s public Zoom meeting, Johnson explained that the work group has met three times, and through its work decided that the best option would be a combined service area for both communities. Residents of Ninilchik could have voted to form their own separate borough service area, but the work group found that the mill rate set on property taxes to pay for it would have been higher, since there would be fewer properties included.
As described by Johnson, the proposed boundaries of the combined service area would start at the northernmost end around the power transmission tower in Clam Gulch, and ends to the south where the Kachemak Emergency Service Area begins. In essence, the plan expands the existing Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area north to include most of the Ninilchik voting precinct boundaries. The expansion continues north until it abuts the Central Emergency Services’ southern boundary. Jonhson said there was a specific effort to not allow any gaps between existing service areas.
“From a borough assembly perspective, I would like to see that if an accident happens someplace, that it’s covered by somebody,” he said.
To view the proposed boundaries map and read the work group’s final report to the assembly in its entirety, go to kpb.us/assembly-clerk/active-task-forces/ninilchik-anchor-point-joint-service-area-work-group.
The work group has recommended that the service area come with a mill rate charged to property owners of no more than 2.95 mills. This is slightly higher than the Anchor Point service area’s current mill rate of 2.85 mills. After questions from some community members during Friday’s virtual meeting, borough staff confirmed that this in no way alters the current tax exemption enjoyed by senior citizens in the borough. Only property owners would have to pay the mill rate.
Johnson explained that the proposed boundaries were drawn specifically to include several oil and gas properties, as well, to capitalize on their contribution.
“This is a significant factor in the … service area,” he said. “About a third of the value of the properties in that area are oil and gas properties.”
The mill rate of 2.95 would pay to maintain at least 10 full time employees to be split between the two areas, according to the working group. One virtual meeting participant worried that current Ninilchik EMS volunteers might be asked to serve in Anchor Point. Dawson Slaughter, a volunteer with Anchor Point Fire and EMS, is a member of the working group and said volunteers and staff would likely be put to work in the communities where they live. It wouldn’t make sense to ask Ninilchik fire and EMS volunteers to go up to Anchor Point unless it was for joint training, he said.
Another concern voiced during the meeting was what will happen to the assets currently held by the NES nonprofit organization. They include the fire department building, apparatus and monetary investments. Borough staff explained that, before the joint service area could be formed, assets would have to be transferred to the borough. The main reason for this, explained Deputy Borough Attorney Patty Burley, is that the joint service area would need the building and firefighting apparatus in order to function. The goal would not be to strip the nonprofit of funds it has accumulated. Borough staff said members of the NES board can work with the borough in order to nail down these details.
Other fire and EMS service areas in the borough also have their own nonprofit organizations that fundraise for them, said Community and Fiscal Projects Manager Brenda Ahlberg. The NES board could choose to continue to exist in that capacity.
Katherine Covey is chair of the NES board and participated in Friday’s meeting. She said the board has officially come out in support of the process to move toward an official combined service area.
“While we’re not actively advocating it or begging people to jump on board with it, we want the facts to get out there and to let people know those,” Covey said.
Should the assembly approve the ordinance putting the proposition on the October ballot, the proposition would have to pass with a majority of the votes in both Anchor Point and Ninilchik. That is, a majority of people would have to vote yes in Ninilchik, and a majority of people would also have to vote yes in Anchor Point. If the proposition passed in one community but failed in the other, the entire measure would fail.
Should the proposition pass, it would take about a year’s time from the October election for the service area to get up and running. Bear and volunteers with Ninilchik Emergency Services would be able to apply for the paid positions the joint service area would support. The service area would also still rely on volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians from both areas.
To join this Friday’s virtual public hearing, visit https://zoom.us/j/93000735671. The meeting identification number is 930 0073 5671. To join by telephone, call 1-888-788-0099 or 1-877-853-5246 and enter the meeting ID.
People with questions or feedback on the proposal can send their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. The ordinance seeking to put the service area proposition on the October ballot will be up for public hearing at the July 7 assembly meeting. Call 907-714-2160 with questions.