Ladder truck spared in budget
Eagle River’s ladder truck will continue to serve the community, rescued from budget cuts by public outcry and political compromise.
On Tuesday night (Nov. 13), the Anchorage Assembly unanimously approved the municipality’s operating budget for 2013, which includes Anchorage Fire Department funding for Truck 11 in Eagle River and its crew.
Mayor Dan Sullivan had proposed shutting down Eagle River’s engine. A similar proposal surfaced in 2010.
The budget vote was no surprise. Instead, the real drama unfolded in the weeks leading up to it, with a fix to the firetruck dilemma coming together just last week.
“It’s one of the most stressful things I had to go through as an Assembly member,” said Eagle River Assembly member Bill Starr, who serves as budget committee chair. “Did I hit it just right?”
The proposal to cut services at Eagle River’s fire station hit the ground in early October with the first version of the mayor’s proposed budget. Sullivan said the move was part of his plan to address an $18 million to $30 million shortfall. He factored Station 11’s relatively low call volume into his decision.
Local residents lashed out during two budget hearings, saying the cuts put lives at risk. Union representatives for the Anchorage Fire Department did too.
They condemned potential delays responding to fires, swiftwater rescues, and wrecks, especially for trucks navigating icy, steep roads from Muldoon or elsewhere in the Anchorage Bowl. Just getting to Eagle River is a 15-minute drive — in good weather.
Daiquiri Wright, a 10-year-old badly burned in a 2007 house fire up Eagle River Road that killed her brother and a cousin, stood up to testify at one of the October hearings.
Jasmine Dirkes, Daiquiri’s mother, said the response to that fire was five minutes delayed — and that was with a truck based in Eagle River. Imagine if engines had been coming from Muldoon, she said.
The family mobilized, getting people to come before the Assembly. Daiquiri made signs: “Please save my fire truck. It saved my life.”
At an October hearing, Daiquiri stood up before the Assembly, her voice shaking, and showed her scars, Dirkes said. She urged them to make sure the fire truck didn’t go anywhere.
“She got a standing ovation from the audience,” her mother said.
Assembly member Debbie Ossiander told Daiquiri’s grandmother that she agreed with the family’s comments and was doing what she could to make sure truck wasn’t shut down, Dirkes said.
Ultimately, multiple Assembly members including Starr and Ossiander pressed Sullivan on plans to cut AFD funding in Eagle River. Starr requested a study into staffing and call levels at Station 11.
Funding was tentatively restored at a work session Friday, after Assembly members and the mayor hashed out a compromise.
Among 16 amendments emerging that day, Starr and several other Assembly members proposed adding $1 million or more to the budget to address Eagle River and other fire department cuts if other funding wasn’t found. Starr’s proposal added $1.5 million to increase overtime budget, reinstating Station 11 staffing and Truck 11 operations, and moved up next year’s fire academy to June.
Found funding for the fire department came from two sources: a budget surplus that will fund firefighter overtime, and a miscalculation by municipal fiscal officers that overestimated firefighter raises by $400,000.
Starr described a sometimes confusing budget process — a total of four proposed budgets materialized from the mayor’s office — that stymied effective debate. He described himself as blindsided by the mayor’s original proposal to ax the engine, but also thwarted by what he described as the AFD union’s reluctance to examine staffing levels.
At Tuesday night’s hearing, several Assembly members expressed concerns with the one-time funding drummed up to pay for items like the fire truck in Eagle River.
The mayor’s budget includes $100,000 to look into appropriate emergency staffing levels. Starr also proposed an amendment for $40,000 to study the consolidation of Anchorage fire and police emergency call and dispatch centers.
The Anchorage Fire Department budget is just shy of $4 million higher than last year’s. The overall budget is up $20.6 million over last year. Taxes are projected to increase 3 to 4 percent.
Truck 11 survived a similar challenge in 2010. Dirkes said she and her family fought those cuts too.
“We didn’t bring up the delay as hard in fighting last time but this time it was just kind of felt like a slap in the face,” she said. “Every time they try and cut things Eagle River gets hit first.”
Zaz Hollander is a freelance writer who lives in the Mat-Su Valley. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.