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Alaska borough asks to add 11 full-time responders

The initial request was for 37 amid a growing population and struggle to handle increasing 911 calls

By Zaz Hollander
Anchorage Daily News

WASILLA, Alaska — Mat-Su Borough emergency officials are asking the borough Assembly to fund 11 new paramedic and firefighters to handle 911 calls in the crowded core of the Valley, a move toward a larger full-time force, even as managers urge borough directors to hold the line on spending.

The Mat-Su Borough's proposed budget totals more than $403 million, including just over $269 million for schools, according to the 570-page document available on the borough website. That's actually a little less than the budget for last year, though officials say they expect the final number to change.

Various department directors who are trying to keep up with the continued growth of the Valley -- the borough population is nearing 100,000 -- initially asked for a total of 37 new full-time positions, according to the proposed spending plan.

Money is tight in the Mat-Su this budget season. Given constraints including higher retirement payments and a potential $8 million shortfall at Port MacKenzie, Borough Manager John Moosey said he opted to introduce a draft budget with only seven new full-time paramedic positions.

Fire officials requested another four full-time firefighters, borough emergency services director Dennis Brodigan told the Assembly last week during a presentation at the main fire station in Wasilla.

The borough relies on more than 500 paid, on-call volunteer firefighters, rescue technicians and medics, Brodigan said, but a recent cap on hours has left officials scrambling to staff ambulances and fire calls. Last year, there were nearly 7,500 total calls for emergency medical services. Borough crews responded to more than 3,000 fires.

Brodigan is pressing for an increase in full-time responders, who are highly trained and able to act quickly to rescue calls because they're working regularly scheduled shifts.

"With a primarily on-call response system our response times tend to suffer," he said.

The new firefighter and paramedic positions would cost $951,043 and $378,749, respectively, and would be funded through fire service area taxes and increased ambulance fees, officials say.

The department got support from at least one Assembly member. Ron Arvin, who lives near the Palmer Hay Flats, gave kudos to firefighters for extinguishing a fast-moving brush fire near his home on Easter Sunday.

But several Assembly members also asked Brodigan pointed questions, referring to a critical audit of the emergency department's record-keeping and analysis of fire calls. They wondered if the new hires will help rural areas. Brodigan said he hopes to add more positions in places like Sutton or Willow.

The total budget proposed by emergency services officials is a little more than $25 million.

The borough's total proposed budget includes nearly $56 million for borough operations, a little over $11 million for capital projects and more than $34 million to pay down debt on big-ticket items including schools, the animal shelter and a new fire station near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.

Construction projects around the borough include a new junior-senior high school up Knik-Goose Bay Road and 16 separate road projects totalling nearly $100 million.

The borough is also partway through construction on a new $272 million railroad spur from Port MacKenzie to the Parks Highway. The spur would finally put the borough's struggling port in the black, officials have said. In the meantime, the budget includes nearly $8 million proposed to pay down years of deficit spending at the port as recommended during an audit last year.

Jim Sykes, one of two new Assembly members, during a sparsely attended budget hearing Thursday evening pointed out that the borough has come to rely more on grant funding and less on more predictable property tax payments over the last decade. That worries him, Sykes said, because grant funding is out of the borough's control.

"We have a serious challenge in our budget looking forward about diversifying our sources," he said.

Officials have scheduled special meetings to deliberate and adopt a budget through May 14. Only four people spoke at a public hearing on the budget that followed Brodigan's presentation Thursday. Five spoke during a hearing in Willow Friday.

The borough planned another public hearing on the spending plan at 6 p.m. Monday in Assembly Chambers in Palmer. For the first time, the borough will operate a call-in line for people to provide comments. The number is (907) 891-7133; callers have to dial (907). Borough clerk Lonnie McKechnie said she didn't know how long the wait might be but callers can hear the meeting while they are on hold.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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