By Carey Restino
The Homer City Council opted Monday night to move forward with plans to build a more substantial fire station with room for storage of several pieces of apparatus rather than original plans for a large, insulated tent-like structure on the ridge above Homer.
The move had a price tag of around $100,000 more than the original station planned for the Skyline Drive location, topping out at nearly $600,000 to complete the project. But the council agreed with city staff that the increase allowed them to get substantially more bang for their buck.
“I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard anyone say, ‘Boy, I wish I’d built that smaller’ or “I wish I had less storage space,’” commented Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter at Monday night’s council meeting.
Painter told the council that for the extra $98,000, it would get an actual building rather than a semi-permanent storage structure. The new plans call for a four-bay facility with a small office and a bathroom, though there are no plans for the station to be manned. Instead, it would house a fire truck, an ambulance and a brush truck for wildfire response. Painter told the council one of the main goals accomplished by putting a station on Skyline Drive was quicker response time for firefighting efforts on top of the bluff above Homer. Currently, response efforts are initiated from town, but the climb up the hill with a water-laden fire truck can be slow.
“The tanker weighs 57,000 pounds,” said Painter. “It takes a lot of time to get up East or West Hill.”
The city council received news from its finance department Monday night that it had finished 2013 with $400,000 more dollars in its coffers than expected, making the decision to increase the scope of the station slightly less difficult.
But several council members commented that the surplus money should be used to address areas of shortfall, such as employee retirement and health care costs, rather than seen as a slush fund.
The council heard from two organizations serving different ends of the Homer population Monday night, but both facing budget shortfalls that threatened to undermine their programs.
The Homer Hockey Association told the council that in 2015, it was going to be required to begin payments on the principle of the $2.24 million it took on when it bought the rink from Homer Spit Properties. The building was originally erected by the English Bay Corp. in 2005 and leased to the Homer Hockey Association for 20 years.
But Jan Rumble, representing the Homer Hockey Association, told the council that despite remarkable volunteer efforts, the upcoming increase in expenses was going to double the costs for those using the rink, making it too expensive for many to use the popular arena.
The council passed a resolution supporting the ice rink, and recognizing it for the many people its tournaments and activities bring to the community, and acknowledging its unusual status as one of the only nonprofit rinks run in Alaska and the United States.
Meanwhile, Karen Kelley, executive director of the Homer Senior Center, presented her organization’s situation to the council, saying that for years it has served hundreds of seniors and their families in the area with little to no support from the city, but that might need to change. The senior center, which provides everything from low-cost senior housing to day programs for the elderly, has seen energy costs skyrocket in recent years, and faces a cost of $500,000 to overhaul its facilities and switch them to natural gas.
“We are asking for some help so we can keep going for the next 40 years,” Kelley said.
On a recent trip to Juneau looking for support, Kelley said it became apparent that lawmakers in the capital wanted to see some indication of city support for the programs the senior center was providing. Kelley suggested that support might come through reduced utility costs for water and sewer or other means, but she said the contribution the senior center makes to the community is substantial.
“We believe we are a very important part of the community and we need your help,” she said.
• Heard frustration from Homer resident Robert Archibald, who lives in a subdivision between West Hill Road and Rogers Loop, where crews clearing a right-of-way, assumingly for the installation of the natural gas pipeline, cut down old trees without the landowners’ permission or notification.
“There should be a dialogue,” Archibald told the city. “We are pretty upset about it.”
• Heard an update from Matt Steffy on the Parks, Art, Recreation and Culture Needs Assessment progress. Steffy said the group has moved forward with refining the priorities and goals of the assessment and hopes to move forward with a request for proposals to complete the assessment in early April. Depending on the way the assessment is conducted, it could be completed in a year or less, he said.
• Advised Homer City Manager Walt Wrede to move forward with bringing an ordinance to the council at its next meeting authorizing the expenditure of $31,000 for a paid section in a trade publication highlighting the city of Homer. The appropriation will come before the council twice before action is approved.
• Expressed its support for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, funding for which was recently removed from the budget by a subcommittee of the House Finance Committee. The $175,000 cut could impact federal matching funds and has the potential to close the Islands and Ocean Visitor Center, drawing significant concern from the council.
• Expressed condolences to the family of former city manager Ron Drathman, who passed away last week.
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