Newly elected Homer Mayor Bryan Zak and city council members Shelly Erickson and Tom Stroozas officially joined the ranks of city government at the end of the Monday, Oct. 10 city council meeting. The council also discussed the new animal shelter contract, potential consolidation of dispatch, and the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget.
City clerk Jo Johnson swore in the three individuals, who will take the place of departing Mayor Beth Wythe, council member Gus Van Dyke and Zak’s council seat. Carrot cake from Two Sisters’ Bakery followed the ceremony.
The three newly elected officials said they look forward to getting acquainted with their new positions.
“I’m excited to see where we go. It’s going to be good,” Erickson said. “I think it’s just getting our feet on the ground to see where they’re at and where we can go and then we’ll see what we can do after that.”
Both Zak and Stroozas said that finding a solution for the need of a new police building would be a priority, since the ballot measure to fund the building of a new station failed in the Oct. 4 election.
“Reality set in like that, instantly,” Zak said. “The capital improvement projects that we voted on — the public safety building — we’re going to have to come up with some kind of plan moving forward because we definitely need a new facility. That’s the thing in the forefront.”
Stroozas supports building a new police station, just not at the cost of $12 million that was presented in the election, he said.
“I’m really ready and anxious to go to work and get some meaningful things done for this community,” Stroozas said. “The public safety building is an imperative issue. … I’ve talked with several of my fellow council members already and we’ve got some ideas that we’re going to be talking about in the very, very near future. Hopefully before long we can come up with a plan that we can share with the community and something that everybody will embrace and get on board with.”
In addition to new council members, the city is getting a new animal shelter contractor. The council voted to approve the resolution to award the contract for the Homer Animal Shelter operations and management services to Homer firm Alaska Mindful Paws. The contract lasts two years in the amount of $179,150 per year, with the option to extend at the end of the contract period.
Though the contract bid from Alaska Mindful Paws was the lowest, it is approximately $50,000 higher than the city previously paid to operate the shelter, according to a memorandum from city manager Katie Koester. However, she said at the meeting, the services provided by Mindful Paws meets or exceeds all of the city’s requirements and will result in a professionally operated shelter. Despite the higher cost, the Homer shelter will still be run at a lower cost than Kenai or Soldotna, as running the shelter using city employees would cost an additional $50,000-$80,000 per year.
During the first of a two-part work session, Koester presented potential costs and benefits of the Soldotna Public Safety Communications Center providing dispatch services for Homer, instead of the city having the independent dispatch center it currently does. The borough is examining the possibility of consolidating dispatch for Homer, Seward and Kenai by providing dispatch services based on a per-call fee structure. Police calls would cost the city $24, while EMS calls would cost $48.
While many factors are uncertain, the project has the potential to save the city $77,000, Koester said. However, Koester does not believe the move would be in the city’s best interest, she said.
The pros of such a change include a larger center with more resources, so that the dispatchers would not be so task saturated, said Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. The centralized dispatch center would provide double coverage 24-7, so that two calls could be taken at once. Currently, a second call placed while one dispatcher is engaged in Homer rolls over to the Soldotna center.
The move would remove 4.5 positions from the Homer area, however, and leave work currently done by dispatchers for police officers, which could remove some officers from the streets at night, or additional administrative staff would have to be hired. The dispatch in Homer does additional duties such as acting as a jail officer, watching over cameras in the police station, and case paperwork that would need to be picked up by someone else.
Homer dispatch would also lose the advantage back-up communication systems currently in place in the case of a major emergency that affected the main system, the advantage of the Homer Police Department’s database that contains detailed information on cases and persons in the Homer area, and the local knowledge afforded by local dispatch. Also, the cost to reinstate dispatch in Homer if, after the three-year contract is up, the city is unhappy with the service provided by consolidated dispatch, would be prohibitive and the loss of dispatchers might further prevent reinstating the local dispatch as it currently is.
In her departing words to the council at the end of the meeting, Wythe encouraged council members to stay with Homer’s current dispatch system.
“All things in life are not about money. Some things are about this service you can provide your community and I can tell you, Soldotna cannot provide that service to your community,” Wythe said. “You cannot replace what you get when you have local dispatch with having a central dispatch system. Those are things to think about.”
South Peninsula Hospital forensic nurses Chris Fontaine and Colleen James gave a presentation on a project to create a centralized location where victims of assault and abuse could go to receive care. The two nurses told the council that while Homer has the oldest program of care for victims of abuse, it is the only one out of 11 in the state with such a center, which would provide private, comfortable space for support workers to conduct exams and interviews. Currently, forensic nurse exams occur in a room across from the trauma bay in SPH’s emergency room, which is often loud and chaotic.
This is not ideal, as 58 percent of cases the nurses work with are children who have already gone through a traumatic experience, Fontaine said. Many families also drop cases because of the hassle of going to different locations for different aspects of care, Fontaine said. Since 2013, Fontaine and James have given 141 forensic exams, a number which is lower than the actual community need for such services because of the drop out rate. The proposed center would remove barriers to service and increase the number of cases that come forward in the community, James and Fontaine said. They asked for community support and input on the project, which they are working on with stakeholders such as SPH.
Other business addressed by the council:
• The budget for fiscal year 2017 was presented by Koester during the committee of the whole meeting. The council will discuss the budget over the course of the next few meetings.
• The council approved a resolution to support as priorities capital improvement plan projects in the form of a new public safety building and a deep vessel harbor.
• The council approved ordinance 16-47, which accepted a state homeland security program grant in the amount of $343,363.40 that provides funds to purchase two dispatch consoles at $47,363.40 and replace the public safety radio system at $296,000.
• Ordinance 16-49, which appropriates $180,000 to purchase new LED lights for seven high mast light poles at the harbor, passed.
• The results of the Oct. 4 election — the election of Bryan Zak as mayor and Tom Stroozas and Shelly Erickson as council members, as well as the failed measure to incur debt and issues general obligation bonds for no more than $12 million to finance the planning, design and construction of a police station — were certified by the city council.
• KPEDD executive direction Tim Dillon presented the organization’s goals for community engagement. KPEDD’s comprehensive economic strategy can be found and downloaded from kpedd.org.
• Mayor Beth Wythe proclaimed the week of Oct. 16-22 as Friends of Libraries Week. Homer Friends of the Library will have a used book and other media sale this weekend to raise funds for the Homer Public Library.
Anna Frost can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.