Council funds port expansion, fire department

The Homer Volunteer Fire Department will gain two new Full-time firefighter/EMT positions.

The Cowles Council Chambers was full on Monday, Nov. 28 for the last Regular Meeting of the Homer City Council of 2022. During the meeting, themes that provoked plenty of conversation were the Homer Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD), expansion of the City of Homer Port and Harbor, and volunteerism.

Before discussion began concerning the adoption of ordinances, a few speakers presented to the council.

First, Karin Marks, Chair of the Economic Development Advisory Commission (EDC), gave a presentation reflecting on their work during 2022 in Homer. Marks said that her commission sought to define “what makes Homer, Homer,” and they pursued the answer by creating a “SWOT” (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) distribution for the town.

The EDC identified some of the strengths of Homer as having a “small town feel and scale,” and being an, “integrated town with outdoor environment.” Some of the weaknesses they identified were the “lack of worker support: Housing, Childcare, Training,” and, “some infrastructure is in need of repair (roads) or expansion — storm water + green infrastructure.”

Additionally, the EDC’s graph identified “Threats” to Homer’s quality of life. Some of those threats included, “difficult to recruit new talent,” “new residents may not become involved in the community … Risk of gentrification; becoming a community of empty households,” and “costs of living and doing business.”

Overall, Marks presented this information in hopes that it “will show patterns that we can use to continue our strengths as they’re listed in the chart.”

Second, Kate Finn came to speak on behalf of the Homer Library Advisory Board (LAB).

The most recent LAB meeting was highly notable. On Nov. 15 a crowd of about 150 people gathered in the council chambers, with 70-100 people participating via Zoom, to engage in a conversation on the topic of moving LGBTQI+ books from the children’s section of the library which lasted four hours.

Finn affirmed what she saw as a “mature and respectful style of interaction.”

“I say yay, yay Homerites, and we can keep this moving forward,” Finn said.

The next LAB meeting is scheduled for Jan. 17, 2023.

Next, there were a few ordinances which drew forth conversation, including Ordinance 22-79, which asks to appropriate $408,073 from the Port Reserves for an Owner’s Representative for the New Large Vessel Harbor and Issuing a Task Order to HDR to Provide Owner’s Representative Services.

The council unanimously voted affirmatively for this ordinance.

The passing of this ordinance allows the City of Homer to come into formal relationship with HDR Engineering, an international company with a location based in Anchorage. With this first step, HDR will be assisting “with the additional workload that will be required from the City to ensure that the City of Homer gets the best results possible from a Corps Port Expansion General Investigation study,” according to the ordinance details.

Bryan Hawkins, Harbormaster and Port Director, wrote in a memo: “I believe that hiring HDR will pay this community back many times over when it comes to meeting our shared goals”— the goal being to build a port expansion.

With this ordinance, Phase 1 of a seven phase strategy for the port expansion project will begin.

Crisi Matthews, Chair of the Port and Harbor Advisory Commission, weighed in on this ordinance during the public comment opportunity.

“My request to this council is to support the items of testimony tonight that the Port and Harbor Commission has worked very hard on, and that we give Juneau and Washington a united step forward by continuing to support our parking growth, the expansion study, and HDRs contract so that we may move forward,” Matthews said.

The President of the North Pacific Fisheries Association, Malcolm Milne, also contributed to the discussion on behalf of his association.

“We are supportive of this course of action,” Milne said, “I think if you’re going to go big, you should do it right, and so that looks like what we’re doing here.”

Additionally, Council member Rachel Lord asked what the limitations of this phase of the port expansion process were.

“My question is really revolved around this is a really big and long project, and so just what is the scope of this portion for this particular contract with HDR?” Lord said.

Lord also emphasized the importance of continuing community collaboration as the project continues to materialize. “I do think one of the great parts of this, of the tasks that are before us under this… [is] participation with all those who need to be brought alongside as we continue moving forward,” Lord said.

Finally, the Council approached Ordinances 22-81 and 22-82, which appropriated the necessary resources for both the purchase of a new ambulance and the funding of two new Full-Time Firefighter/EMT Positions with the Homer Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD), respectively.

City Manager Rob Dumouchel spoke about the necessity of these ordinances, saying, “the main takeaway I need the council to understand is that the current mix of career and volunteer staffing at the volunteer fire department is not sustainable for maintaining adequate response capabilities in our growing community.”

HVFD Chief Mark Kirko described the current state of the fire department, also calling for aid. After sharing stories about the burnout, stress and strained ability of the current staff, Kirko said that the HVFD deserves serious attention.

“We do know that we need to take a good strong look at, do we want to focus our attention on preserving volunteerism, or do we want to focus our attention on life safety and making sure the buildings don’t burn down? Because truthfully, that’s my job,” Kirko said.

Kirko and Dumouchel also shared information about the decaying state of the HVFD equipment, and how necessary it is to restock their tools.

“What we’re trying to do is provide a better, safer service to our community, and that’s all we’re trying to do,” said Kirko.

Five other HVFD staff members testified about the dire importance of focusing funds on the department. Some, like Deputy Fire Chief Joe Kahles, shared almost tragic stories about the consequences of the Department’s current state of under-employment.

Kahles told a story from the past Thanksgiving holiday weekend about a motor vehicle accident which required the HVFD’s action. Despite having time-off for the holiday, Kahles had to leave his family and attend to this accident. However, he felt the response came close to being devastatingly unsatisfactory.

“The problem was that it took us 17 minutes from the initial time that the tones went off until we got one person on scene. One person cannot pull someone out of a burning car. One person cannot provide medical care to multiple people, especially in 17 degree weather. That’s what kills people in this business,” Kahles said.

“Our volunteers are tired, our paid staff are tired — there are literally volunteer and paid behind me asking you to help maintain the minimum level of service that the citizens of Homer deserve,” Kahles also said.

Other speakers from the HVFD also emphasized that the additions of this ordinance would not be completely sufficient, but merely meet the minimum needs of the Department.

This was the last Homer City Council Regular Meeting of 2022. The next meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Jan. 9, 2023.