ANCHORAGE (KTUU) – The Municipality of Anchorage has come up short on the operating budget for fire services through the remainder of 2019. The gap in question is about $4 million, and could result in dormant fire equipment at times.
One of the major problems is paying for fill-in staff overtime pay when firefighters take leave. Fire companies recently received a new memo including cost-cutting measures. It included the directive to shut down engines and companies that are understaffed due to employees calling out, in order to avoid overtime costs.
Mike Stumbaugh, president of Local 1264, the Anchorage Firefighters Union, says the new policies are not serving the firefighters’ or the public’s best interests, and that shutting down engines based on staffing shortages will only save a small fraction of the money needed.
“One thing that’s missing in this narrative is that these water tenders, truck companies and engines were bonded for the most part … The voters, when they bonded them, said, ‘Yes, I want that piece of equipment and I want it manned.’ They’re not saying they want it closed,” Stumbaugh said.
He added that the new policy has caused many firefighters to feel obligated to come to work whether they’re sick, on vacation or experiencing an emergency, just to keep their units from shutting down that day.
“When you do have a closure anywhere in town, it’s going to delay our response,” he said.
Municipal Manager William Falsey sat down with Stumbaugh and members of the City’s public safety committee recently to go over the concerns. Falsey says he understands the frustration from firefighters, but says that precautions have already been taken to avoid similar incidents in the coming year.
Falsey says that 2019 is a tough situation: Unforeseen costs like the size of the department’s fire academy and an unusual amount of leave cash-out compounded to help create the shortfall.
Until this point, the Municipality has been taking excess funds from other departments to help make up for that deficit, but as we approach the end of 2019, these new measures are the municipality’s best option for making it to the beginning of a new year, and a bigger operating budget, Falsey says.
“I think the punch line now is that the fire department is challenged and we always have to make a choice,” Falsey said. “Do we pull in people on overtime to help get us back to capacity or do we just provide the level of service needed, just stretched a little thinner?”
Stumbaugh says he appreciated the Municipality’s willingness to meet over the matter, and its attempts to chip away at the gap; however, even with the added funds in next year’s budget, he still estimates a deficit of about $1.6 million dollars.
“I do have faith in the mayor and the city manager that they’re going to do the right thing,” Stumbaugh said, “and the right thing is not just taking care of us, it’s taking care of the citizens that they’re sworn to protect, just like we are.”