ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — In addition to fighting fires, this year, the Anchorage Fire Department has been battling a budget shortfall. The department is around $4 million over-budget, and the department has begun rolling closures to save money.
The city and the department were aware of a money shortage early in the year.
“We had signals that the budget was going to be challenged in the Summer,”said Municipal Manager Bill Falsey. “But of course, you'll also remember that this Summer was a record-hot Summer, with all kinds of wildfires."
So they waited until cool weather rolled in to roll out the closures.
“A couple days before October first we issued a memo telling our operations staff, and the rest of the mayor's office, the manager's office that we would be conducting rolling closures if people called in sick over a certain number," said Anchorage Fire Chief Jodie Hettrick.
The closures save cash to fight the deficit, but add crucial minutes to response times.
“When an apparatus isn't available, that means the other apparatus from nearby stations have to respond,” Hettrick said. “So the community can expect it to take longer."
In a phone conversation with KTUU, Local 1264 Firefighters Union President Make Stumbaugh said these closures go against the city’s dedication to public safety. He pointed to the historical budget issues the department has had. Before 2017 and 2018, the department when years without meeting budget.
Falsey said the city isn’t happy with the coverage, but that it’s necessary to avoid growing the deficit.
“That's resulted in a thinner coverage model, which is not the level of service we'd like to provide," he said.
The closures should stop when the new budget rolls in, though.
“January 1st, we'll be on a new budget, so we'll be able to stop the rolling closures and be back to minimum staffing," Hettrick said.
Falsey also said they've also taken steps to try to prevent the same shortfall next year.
“In the 2020 budget, we proposed, and we're gratified that the assembly adopted, full funding, for a full academy, to keep the Fire Department at full strength, which should happen very early in 2020, and let us avoid a lot of the overtime that we incurred this year,” he said.
Stumbaugh said he doubted that would be enough, and he expects budget issues to happen again in 2020.
For the next six weeks, though, the closures are likely to stay. The Anchorage Assembly passed a resolution on Tuesday attempting to add more funds to the Fire Department’s budget. Falsey says they’re looking into ways to try to make that happen, but that it’s likely the funds simply aren’t there. So until 2020, the closures are likely to continue.
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