Anchorage Assembly gives fire department more money for overtime spending, but chief says strategic closures expected to continue

The Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday to shift $175,000 of unspent funds from the city health department’s budget to fund overtime expenses for the fire department after an announcement earlier this month that the department would be implementing strategic closures to cut costs.

But Fire Chief Doug Schrage said the funds won’t come near covering all of the department’s anticipated overages for the year, so the anticipated closures will continue regardless.

The closures are expected to begin Friday and will cut overtime by taking certain pieces of equipment out of service, and therefore the staff that operates them, during nighttime shifts when there tend to be fewer emergencies. No station will be fully closed — instead the department will take one or two pieces of equipment out of service from bigger stations where there are multiple pieces. Geographically isolated areas, like Eagle River, will not be included in the closures because it would take longer for crews from other stations to respond to emergencies in those areas.

Schrage said the plan does not come without risk, but called it a “calculated risk” and characterized it as a reasonable approach to managing budget issues while maintaining public safety.

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“There are many possibilities that could, although they haven’t historically ... overwhelmed our system, clearly the possibility exists, but I’m confident that it will not have that effect,” he said.

The closures have drawn criticism from the firefighter’s union and some Anchorage Assembly members who raised concerns about cutting back on services from first responders as the city grapples with spiking COVID-19 cases and hospitals in the city are under extreme strain.

The $175,000 allotment would come from unspent funds in the Anchorage Health Department’s operating budget intended to be used toward overnight shelter, said Assembly Member Meg Zaletel. Because the city is operating a mass care center, the funds aren’t needed this year, she said.

The fire department is projected to spend about $5 million on overtime by the end of the year if there are no reductions, Schrage said during the Assembly meeting. The department has budgeted about $3.37 million for overtime and Schrage said earlier this month that it had already spent about $3.2 million.

The appropriation, he said, “will certainly reduce the amount of our overspend, but won’t erase it for this year.” The department is shifting other areas in its budget to account for the overspending on overtime so it will come close to being on budget, Schrage said.

The department was expected to save between $70,000 to $125,000 by the end of the year by implementing the strategic nighttime closures. The department is going to be over budget this year, Assistant Fire Chief Alex Boyd said. The cost reductions will still be needed to bring the department closer to the budget, and the appropriation will also help, but not enough to push the department under the budget, he said.

“While we are very appreciative of the support that the Assembly is giving us, unfortunately it doesn’t close the gap that we have,” Boyd said.

The fire department has often exceeded its overtime budget in recent years. Schrage said the department plans to implement the closures into next year to manage the budget.

Assembly members and Schrage agreed the department will need to find a long-term solution to prevent the overspending from continuing in future.

Zaletel said by phone Wednesday that she is disappointed the department plans to continue the closures even with the additional funds.

“The funding amount came from their statement that this would save that much money, so we found the funds,” she said. “Now is just not the time to take calculated risks. And even if you call them strategic closures, they don’t come without risks.”