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Mat-Su responders sue borough over retirement benefits

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- More than a dozen emergency responders are suing the Mat-Su Borough, claiming they never got the state pension payments they deserve despite years of service responding to fires and medical calls at nearly full-time staffing levels.

The borough's more than 430 paid on-call responders make up at least 90 percent of the fire and ambulance crews responding to ever-increasing emergency calls in the Valley. Only about a dozen medics work as full-time employees, along with a handful of firefighters.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Palmer, centers on the borough's obligation to pay into the Alaska Public Employees' Retirement System. The 15 named plaintiffs in the case contend they worked more than 30 hours a week on average every year but the borough never gave them PERS benefits, according to the complaint.

Along with damages to be proven at trial and attorney fees, the lawsuit seeks benefits now and in the future but also asks for PERS contributions the borough should have paid in past years.

The case has been assigned to Palmer Superior Court Judge Vanessa White.

Borough officials have been instructed not to comment on the lawsuit, according to Clint Vardeman, deputy director of emergency services.

The lawsuit has been brewing since 1968, when the borough signed its first PERS contract, said Ronald Offret, the Anchorage attorney representing the plaintiffs.

Offret likened the situation to a company that takes taxes out of an employee's paycheck but never sends the money to the federal government. He said as many as 1,200 employees could qualify for inclusion in the lawsuit -- many of them emergency responders but also librarians and lifeguards.

"It's enough to make the borough cry," Offret said. "They never wanted to do it. They keep saying they're out of money, and promising services to the citizens of the borough, and now they're in a situation where they can't keep their promises to the citizens."

The lead plaintiff in the case, Steven Barenburg, is an assistant chief at the West Lakes Fire Department, which responds to calls in Meadow Lake and Big Lake. Barenburg wasn't available for comment Thursday. Fourteen additional responders are listed as plaintiffs.

Christian Hartley, a captain with the Houston Fire Department, left borough emergency services in 2010 and averaged more than 40 hours a week.

He joined the lawsuit for the same reason he left the borough, Hartley wrote in an email Thursday. "(B)ecause I felt it was a disservice and poor practice to hold responders to the standard of a full-time professional employee, which we also hold ourselves to, while not providing the rewards and benefits of that role."

Hartley comes from a family of responders -- his mother, his father, his wife Alma, a Houston city council member -- and said he harbors no ill will against the borough but said the responders weren't being treated fairly: "The person behind the desk gets PERS, shouldn't the person behind the defibrillator when they work the same hours for the same employer?"

The PERS problem first came to light in 2011. A critical state audit found the borough wrongly classified emergency responders as "temporary" employees. The borough in the past excluded emergency responders. A new PERS agreement that the state signed in early January continues to do so -- only permanent, full-time employees are eligible for the state retirement benefits. A PERS official recently said the borough can determine which groups get benefits.

The borough started enforcing a cap at the start of the year: No paid on-call responder can work more than 29.9 hours a week. Officials have said the cap reflects anticipated costs from the Affordable Care Act.

Responders say the change has led to an unsafe situation involving longer response times and a shortage of experienced medics and firefighters. Borough officials say they hope to boost the number of full-time medics this year but first need Mat-Su Assembly budget approval.

Next, Offret said, he will seek White's approval of the lawsuit as a class action, a rare occurrence in Alaska, where a group of people with a common interest sue somebody else.

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


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com