Willow Fire Department to get new station despite opposition

PALMER -- A $200,000 loan from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough will help Willow get a new fire station at Nancy Lake over the protests of the local board that runs the area's fire service.

The new station is part of a larger conflict between the Willow Fire Department and the three-member board of supervisors that runs it. Responders last month issued a "letter of discontent" accusing the board of not backing the new station or higher property taxes necessary to upgrade the department's aging equipment and buildings.

Willow's fire service area has the lowest tax rate of any in the borough -- $1.34 for every $1,000 of assessed property value -- though it's the second largest in size.

The $200,000 loan approved Tuesday by the borough Assembly allows the Willow Fire Service Area to buy an existing Nancy Lake building at Mile 64.4 of the Parks Highway. The money comes out of the service area's revolving loan fund and triggers $40,000 no-interest payments over a 5-year period.

The location is prime for a warm storage station, a satellite to the main firehouse 5 miles up the Parks Highway that's "in major disrepair and it has been recommended that the building be demolished due to its age and potentially dangerous condition," according to a memo from loan sponsor Vern Halter, who represents Willow on the Assembly.

The borough in December received a $600,000 state grant for the Nancy Lake station, but needed to find other funds to buy the building. Along with improving local response time, borough emergency officials and Willow firefighters say the Nancy Lake station should lead to lower homeowners' insurance premiums.

But Halter said Tuesday he also plans to propose a local property tax increase for the Willow Fire Service Area to $2.75 for every $1,000 in assessed value as part of the borough budget this year. That way it wouldn't have to be voted on by local residents as it would if the fire board proposed one.

Willow voted down a tax increase three years ago though fire board critics blamed a lack of public education on the benefits.

"We're not sending it to a vote," Halter said. "That's how we need to set it."

A few dozen Willow residents attended Tuesday night's meeting to back the loan, as well as a tax rate increase. The assessed value of the Nancy Lake homes accounts for 20 percent of the entire fire service budget, local homeowner's association president Mike Klawitter told the Assembly.

"All the equipment's outdated, it's obsolete and it's a facade that we have fire service in our service area," said retired judge Rene Gonzalez, who owns two properties in Willow. "So far we have been fortunate that there (has) not been loss of life but I can assure you that's just around the corner unless we improve the fire service."

One resident asked for a show of support for the loan. More than 20 hands shot up.

Just three people voiced opposition, including Willow Fire Service Area board of supervisors Doyle Holmes and Jim Huston, two of the board's three members.

Huston, Willow Chamber of Commerce president, said he supported everything about the station except the loan itself, which he said jeopardized the department's fund balance and recommended the state or borough buy the building outright.

Holmes was less moderate.

The Nancy Lake building isn't needed and won't reduce response time, but the loan will "most assuredly bankrupt" the service area, said the local business owner and former borough Assembly member. He also noted that a new fire engine is coming to the department this summer and Willow got a new fire chief last year, along with a new command vehicle.

Holmes told the Assembly they shouldn't expect to see any more newspaper articles on this topic because reporters realized they'd been "duped" by a "well-coordinated campaign." He said the conflict arose after he publicly stated plans to run for Assembly and another resident, Randall Kowalke, filed his intent to run and made the fire service a campaign issue.

"It's been a campaign to demean me," Holmes said. "I don't even intend to file at the present time."

Kowalke testified as well, saying his attendance at numerous board meetings over nearly three years revealed "dysfunction I considered spectacular" and a fire board that acted independent of the community's wishes and at times encouraged violations of state and federal law such as Davis-Bacon wages.

"With this set of sorry circumstances as a backdrop, we seem to be in a complete state of gridlock," he said.

Firefighters told the Assembly that Willow's fire service area can avoid pulling money out of reserves by using operating funds to pay back the loan.

"We fear if we don't receive the loan we may lose the grant from the state," Lt. Nathan Graber said.

While Halter's plans for a property tax increase weren't on the agenda, they got attention as well.

More than 100 residents at a late February town hall meeting supported an increase in local property taxes to help the fire service area, Willow resident Tam Boeve told the Assembly.

"As much as I'd like to place sole blame on the supervisors, the truth of the matter is we've failed as a community as well," Boeve said. "We've taken this for granted and we've paid dearly for it."

Not all residents at Tuesday's meeting supported the Nancy Lake station loan or higher taxes.

Victor Carlson, who lives near Long Lake on a fixed income, said he can't swing a tax hike like wealthier Nancy Lake residents or weekend cabin owners can.

Plus, Carlson said during a break in the meeting Tuesday, he's not sure the extra taxes will help.

"You could buy a new truck, you could put up a new station, but until you got people who can put out the fires it's not going to do you any good," he said.