April 18, 2013 | Volume 43, Number 15

Assembly takes aim at fire service board

The Haines Borough Assembly on Tuesday will consider abolishing the board of fire service area #1, on the recommendation of member Jerry Lapp, who says the group has been inactive for years and that the role it serves is redundant.

Leadership of the Haines Volunteer Fire Department supports the change, but the move divided the service area board.

At an April 1 meeting, a vote of board members to retain the board failed on a 2-2 vote, with members J.R. Myers and Kathleen Fitzwilliam voting in the affirmative and members Alan Heinrich and Richard Buck opposed. Scott Bradford, who serves as fifth member of the board by his position as chief of the Haines Volunteer Fire Department, was absent.

Fitzwilliam has since resigned from the board.

All sides agree that the board hadn’t met for years. Under borough code, the board represents a fire service area that includes most of roaded portions of the valley, except the upper valley, which is served by fire district #3. Residents of the service area effectively agree to a tax rate for service provided by the volunteer fire department.

Friction apparently started last year, following reactivation of the board, and particularly questions from Myers about the history of the board and budgeting. Myers and Fitzwilliam also were seeking an audit of the fire district.

Under borough code, “the board shall recommend to the assembly the annual (fire service) tax for residents and conduct any other business necessary to manage the affairs of the service area, including annual reports and audits.”

“Our hope in the future is to encourage more public involvement and education regarding the needs of the fire service area. Clearly, as stated by (a recent borough facilities survey), fire, ambulance and police are seen as high value to the public,” Fitzwilliam said in a letter early this year.

Myers said he considered the board “a political force to advocate on behalf of the fire district” that he said is “woefully underfunded.” “I wasn’t saying anything was wrong. But there was a total lack of communication and information” about previous board history and actions. He said he was interested in the historic development of the board and its budget, as he had served on an emergency services service area board in Soldotna.

Board member Heinrich, whose seat is a designated one for a member of the fire department, said Myers was asking for something new. “(Myers and Fitzwilliams) wanted to be totally involved in the budget. That’s never happened before.”

Myers said there was a “total communication blackout” from the borough and that fire chief Scott Bradford was resistant to the group’s activities and attended only one of its meetings.

Bradford this week said the department wasn’t resistant to board oversight. “They never had a clear agenda for us to try to help them work on things.” Bradford said he missed the group’s Friday night meetings due to vacation and illness.

Bradford said the assembly has been acting as the service area’s board for years and said budgeting has been a function of the borough manager. “It’s the manager’s budget. It’s not the board’s budget.” He saw the board as a “duplication of power and authority.”

Dissolution of the board wasn’t initiated by the fire department, Bradford said. “Jerry Lapp came to us about it.”

Mayor Stephanie Scott, who attended a recent meeting of the board, said a “personality clash” was at the heart of the issue. Dissolving the board removes a layer of citizen oversight, but the fire department already represents a large portion of the population, Scott said.

Scott said the fire department wasn’t ignoring the fire service board. “The fire service area board, in the body of Mr. Myers, wanted more attention… J.R. Myers started with demands. That’s not how you start something new,” she said.

“It seems to me (the fire department) is acting in the best interest of the service they provide and they’re acting in everybody’s best interest,” she said. She and Bradford said they thought residents with concerns about service could still be heard through the borough assembly.

Mayor Scott said that under state law the borough assembly can sit as the board for any service area.