Mat-Su emergency responders at center of PERS debate

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- They rush to car accidents and house fires, rescue boaters from frigid water and show up at 3 a.m. for a child who can't breathe.

Now more than 400 emergency responders are caught in the middle as the Mat-Su Borough and the state negotiate a new definition for part-time employees eligible for pensions.

Until recently, the borough considered anyone working 25 hours a week or more a part-time employee eligible for benefits through the Alaska Public Employees' Retirement System, officials say.

But the state Division of Retirement and Benefits defines a part-timer as anyone working 15 hours a week or more.

Some say the conflict highlights the need for the Mat-Su to move toward a full-time firefighting and EMS force.

Numerous Alaska communities rely on paid, fully-staffed departments including Anchorage, Kenai, Nikiski, Soldotna, Juneau and Ketchikan.

"The Mat-Su has certainly grown to the point where they, in my opinion, warrant full-time for both fire and EMS," said Tom Wescott, president of the Alaska Professional Fire Fighters Association.

The PERS discrepancy came to light through a 2011 state audit that found the borough needed to reclassify temporary on-call emergency responders as permanent part-time or full-time employees, according to an email from Jim Puckett, division of retirement and benefits director.

This week, borough officials said negotiations with the state continued to reach a new agreement.

Puckett said the state is "waiting on them ... to bring this to a conclusion."

Among the potential consequences of a broader PERS pool: higher costs for borough fire service areas forced to shoulder new costs or a weekly limit of 14.9 hours for the borough's 432 emergency responders.

About a third of the borough's responders work more than 15 hours a week, according to emergency services director Dennis Brodigan. Limiting their hours would result either in a cut in service or a push for new recruits to fill the gap.

"They tend to be more experienced, longer serving, with higher certifications, so it would really affect the stability of the system," Brodigan said.

Following the state's definition of part-time would have a "huge impact" on the borough's response capabilities, Borough Manager John Moosey said.

The cost of providing PERS benefits could break the budgets of some of the borough's eight property tax-funded Fire Service Areas, Moosey said.

Numerous fire department chiefs contacted for this story said they couldn't talk to a reporter about the situation.

Moosey said Thursday that borough officials "have asked our leadership not to speculate on the PERS issue until we have complete information and understanding."

The lack of concrete information is frustrating responders.

Dozens turned out for a mid-October Mat-Su Assembly meeting where PERS was on the agenda. But the item was removed at the last minute. Disappointed responders milled around after the Assembly took a break, then went home.

The borough at one point in recent weeks moved to impose a limit of 15 hours a week for on-call responders as of Nov. 1 but later cancelled that policy, according to an Oct. 25 letter to all borough employees from Moosey.

Some employees were getting information that on-call personnel working more than 14 hours a week were eligible for PERS benefits, Moosey said in the letter. "Of course the on-call personnel knew when they started working here that they did not get PERS benefits, but someone has distributed incomplete and inaccurate information, which has given them this false impression about PERS."

During a recent interview, he said he didn't know who gave out that information.

The state last audited the Mat-Su Borough in 1998, Puckett said. This most recent review was a compliance audit conducted "to make sure the participating employers are following statutes, regulations and so forth."

The current conflict with the state is prompting renewed discussion of moving toward a full-time fire and EMS force to reflect the Valley's growth and the corresponding rise in 911 call volumes.

Right now, the borough considers its 432 emergency responders "paid on-call" workers compensated for the time they spend at car wrecks or fires plus associated hours doing paperwork or other duties.

The borough has only 13 full-time responders, Brodigan said. Ten of them are paramedics, and three firefighter positions have been approved. Additional full-time employees on the fire side -- Mat-Su Fire Chief James Steele and others -- go out on major incidents but otherwise handle mostly administrative duties.

Brodigan once worked for Rural Metro Corp out of Arizona, the largest private fire department in the country.

He said a 60-40 split between full-time and on-call responders seemed to be the most cost-effective system to deliver essential emergency services.

"We're under 10 percent full-time," he said, of the Mat-Su.

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com