Residents of Ninilchik have a choice ahead of them: to form a service area under the Kenai Peninsula Borough to receive fire and emergency services — or to continue with the status quo of having those services performed by a volunteer department run independently of the borough by a nonprofit.
This question came up for the small fishing community again after a recent kerfuffle with the former board of directors for Ninilchik Emergency Services. The former board 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. After outcry from the community, members of that board resigned and were replaced. Huhndorf and Bear were reinstated.
Staff members with the borough held a public hearing Monday in one of the buildings on the Kenai Peninsula Fairgrounds to gather input from residents and to answer their questions.
There are two main options, should residents want an official borough service area in Ninilchik for fire and EMS. Ninilchik residents can vote to establish their own service area, which would draw funding from a mill rate set on taxable property within the service area’s boundaries. Alternatively, residents in both Anchor Point and Ninilchik could vote on whether to form a larger, combined service area that would serve the two communities.
There to give some context was Jon Marsh, acting chief of Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Services. His department currently uses more than half its annual budget (which comes from the mill rate set in that service area) on personnel. Having paid firefighters and EMTs is a benefit because it means guaranteed 24-hour coverage with responders who are qualified at high levels.
Anchor Point Fire and EMS currently has five paid staff members, and is also supported by volunteers, Marsh said.
In response to a question from a community member, Marsh also clarified that many of the fire and EMS service areas in the borough also have separate nonprofits that operate independently from the borough to raise additional funds for those department. Should Ninilchik decide to go with an official borough service area, the community could still keep its existing nonprofit organization, he said.
Residents had several questions, such as the proposed area that would be included in the service area, and how much the mill rate would be. While there are estimates for a potential mill rate, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Brent Johnson explained these are details that would need to be hashed out by a borough working group, which would take the input of the community into consideration while crafting a report for the assembly.
“All the working group will do is make recommendations to the assembly,” Johnson said.
A working group would hold several meetings and there would be several opportunities for public comment. That group would then report their findings to the assembly. From there, an ordinance putting the question of whether to create a service area on the borough ballot for voters would be crafted. If that ordinance was passed by the assembly, the proposition would go on the ballot for the Oct. 6 election, including details like the mill rate and proposed boundaries that had been decided on by the working group.
Johnson said he plans to introduce a resolution at the next assembly meeting, March 17, to form a working group that would get started holding meetings and putting together a proposal.
Members of the Ninilchik Emergency Services board of directors have previously told the Homer News that they are neutral on the issue of Ninilchik forming an official borough service area for fire and EMS services.