Tax could save firefighter jobs
BUDGET: Assembly considers special election to prevent layoffs.


By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News

(Published: October 11, 2003)

Anchorage Assembly members may ask voters next month to approve a special tax that would raise enough money so the city would not have to lay off firefighters and medics.

The increase in property tax would pay for the maintenance of fire hydrants, said Assembly Chairman Dick Traini, who is working on the plan with Assemblyman Allan Tesche, the budget leader. That would free up the money now spent on hydrants so it could be used to avoid layoffs.

Mayor Mark Begich has proposed laying off firefighters, most of whom are cross-trained as paramedics or emergency medical technicians, to help balance next year's budget. It would save $2.1 million in the proposed Fire Department budget of nearly $48 million.

Nineteen firefighters and three battalion chiefs would lose their jobs, Fire Chief John Fullenwider said.

But Begich said no firefighters have gotten layoff notices yet and he wants to find money to keep the force intact. The mayor said he supports the Assembly approach.

The cost to Anchorage property owners would be an estimated $13 a year per $100,000 in assessed property value, or about $1 a month, deputy municipal manager Mike Abbott said.

The Fire Department has 382 positions this year, not counting 24 already approved to staff the new fire station scheduled to open at the first of the year near the corner of Tudor and Baxter roads. The number would drop to 336 under the mayor's proposal, through the layoffs and loss of long-vacant positions.

The city is facing a budget gap of as much as $33 million for next year and is trying to close it through a combination of budget cuts and increases in fines, fees and collections.

For instance, under Begich's proposal, the parking ticket fine would climb from $10 to $25. Fees for other parking violations -- like a parked car found with studded tires after the snow season -- would also go up, to produce an extra $470,000 from parking violations, under the Police Department budget presented to the Assembly on Friday.

Police anticipate generating another $3.7 million by dedicating 10 officers to traffic detail and $500,000 by improving collections of court fines.

But no police officers are being targeted for layoffs, drawing Assembly members' attention to the Fire Department cuts.
"That's not acceptable," Traini said. "We've got to start with life safety."

The special fire hydrant tax would generate about $2.9 million a year, Abbott said. That would be outside the tax cap, allowing the proposed overall operating budget of nearly $307 million to rise by nearly $3 million, Begich said.

Currently, the Fire Department pays the city-owned Anchorage Water & Wastewater Utility about $2.5 million a year to maintain fire hydrants. That includes testing their performance and clearing out brush and debris as well as the cost of connecting them to oversized water pipes and installing new hydrants. The cost is expected to rise to $2.9 million in 2004 or the next year, Abbott said.

The proposal is moving fast. Traini said he intends to call a special meeting Tuesday to introduce it. If the Assembly approves, a special city election would be held Nov. 25, Tesche said.

"The budget will not be passed until this is settled," Traini said.
Voters will get a chance to weigh in on whether the city as a whole should pay for fire hydrant maintenance, Begich said. Currently, only residents within the Anchorage fire service area pay. That doesn't include Girdwood or the area north of Eagle River.

If the layoffs happen, backup crews won't get to fires as quickly and may be delayed entering burning buildings, firefighters have said.
Begich also has proposed that the Fire Department eliminate money for special rescue crews such as dive teams, whose members now are paid at a higher rate because of their extra skill and risk. The money would remain if the special tax passes.

But even if the tax is approved, it won't make up the roughly $5 million that Begich has proposed cutting from the Fire Department.
While the proposed budget of $47.8 million is more than $3 million above this year's level, it will cost almost $8 million more to run the Fire Department at about this year's service levels because of pay raises and other fixed costs. Some fire stations still will lose fire and medic crews, Fullenwider said.

Assembly members promise to fight that.

Traini, for instance, said he's concerned about the loss of an ambulance and crew at Station 4, on Tudor Road and MacInnes Street in his Assembly district. And Anna Fairclough, Assembly member from Eagle River, said she will fight to keep a ladder truck in Eagle River at Station 11.