Members of the Homer City Council voted on Monday to extend the city’s disaster emergency declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic to Dec. 31.
This date aligns with when other cities, like Soldotna, have extended their declarations to, said council member Rachel Lord during the meeting.
The vote garnered significant debate, with Mayor Ken Castner and council member Heath Smith arguing that having prolonged response under the Emergency Operations Center structure no longer provides a significant benefit to the city at this point.
“The added value of having this emergency declaration, I’m not sure still exists,” Smith said.
Smith wanted to postpone voting on the resolution that extended the declaration until it is known how Gov. Mike Dunleavy will handle the state’s disaster emergency declaration, which is set to expire on Nov. 15.
Castner said during the council meeting that Dunleavy had told him and other mayors in a conference call last Thursday that the declaration will expire, and that the administration will not take steps to extend it.
“The governor informed the mayors of the Kenai Peninsula in a conference call on Thursday that he was going to not renew the emergency order on Nov. 15.” Castner said.
However, Jeff Turner, deputy communications director with the governor’s office, said in an email on Tuesday that “whether or not the declaration will be extended has not been determined at this time.”
Alaska law states that a disaster emergency declaration from the governor can only remain in effect for 30 days, unless the Legislature takes action to extend it. The Legislature extended Dunleavy’s declaration to Nov. 15 in a March vote.
A group of 15 state lawmakers signed a letter to Dunleavy on Tuesday raising concerns about the impending expiration, according to a press release from the Alaska House Majority.
“The disaster declaration has allowed for more effective coordination and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, giving the state and local governments, as well as healthcare workers, critical tools to cut through red tape,” the press release states.
In the letter they sent to Dunleavy, the legislators wrote that legislative attorneys have determined that the only “unquestionably legal pathway” for extending the declaration is by amending Senate Bill 241, the bill from March that made the original extension, through a special session.
Castner said he’s been pressing for a comprehensive plan for how the city will move forward through, and recover from, the pandemic.
“Because I’m not interested in just continuing on, and on, and on under an emergency order,” he said. “I want to see how we emerge from this.”
Other council members felt there were still enough benefits from operating under the structure provided by the emergency declaration to keep it in place.
“I in good faith cannot vote to end our emergency declaration at a time when we’re seeing more (COVID-19) activity around us than we ever have before,” Lord said. “And I’m getting more comments to me via phone, email, text, of why isn’t the city doing more? And I do not want to sit here and appear to be doing less by allowing our emergency declaration to expire.”
City Manager Rob Dumouchel weighed in, saying that the declaration does provide a structure in which the city can take advantage of partnerships with South Peninsula Hospital and other upper levels of government. He also acknowledged that “this particular emergency is odd” in how ongoing it is, as opposed to emergencies like natural disasters which are discrete events.
“I wouldn’t want to be in a position where we don’t have a declared emergency and we do want to take advantage of FEMA funding and things like that,” Dumouchel said.
Smith ultimately said he supports extending the declaration through the end of the year, and the vote to extend it to Dec. 31 was unanimous.
“I don’t think there’s any harm in that because I really don’t think it changes anything,” Smith said. “That all being said, I do share some of the frustration of the mayor because I think that there is — we have to see, regardless of where this is, we have to create some daylight at the end of the tunnel. We have to create the hope and the path to getting there. And unless we kind of put some of that into motion — regardless of where there’s stops and gos, or whether we have to pause or restart — I mean, we have to kind of start having a vision of what it looks like to emerge from this.”
Dunleavy was scheduled to address the public regarding the pandemic in a press conference on Tuesday evening, but it was postponed to Wednesday, after the Homer News press deadline.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article has been updated with additional information about Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s press conference.