Frustrated Willow firefighters lash out at board over equipment, stations

WILLOW -- Willow firefighters are accusing their own board of years of budgetary neglect that's left the community underserved and potentially at risk.

Responders say they've agitated to raise local taxes to make essential upgrades. But, they say, they've been stymied by opposition from the very people supposed to be on their side: the three-person board of supervisors that runs the local fire service area.

Firefighters and residents say the board drags out decisions for months, doesn't support raising local taxes and fights the borough's stated priorities for firefighting. Several local and borough-level officials said they'd never seen anything like it.

"It's one of the most dysfunctional organizations purporting to do the public's business that I've ever been around," said Randall Kowalke, a regular at Willow fire board meetings who's preparing a run for Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly.

Last week, the Willow Fire Department went public. A one-page "letter of discontent" was circulated to the borough and local media.

"We, the members of Willow Fire and Rescue, are writing this letter out of frustration and concern, because we feel disenfranchised by our current board of supervisors," the letter begins. "We feel that our board is failing to support the needs of our department, as well as the Mat-Su Borough Emergency Services administration as a whole."

The fire department will hold a town hall meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at the fire station to discuss the conflict.

'Stay out of politics'

The Willow Fire Service Area is the second largest of eight fire-taxing districts in the borough but levies the lowest taxes of any, according to borough statistics. The letter lists four "critical issues:" the board's unwillingness to support three new "warm storage" stations despite available state grant funding; months of procrastination on a tax "mill rate" increase; the urgency of upgrading the main fire station; and aging apparatus in need of repair or replacement.

The longest-standing member of the board is local hardware store owner Doyle Holmes, a former Assembly member and district-level officer with the Alaska Republican Party who's a veteran of all levels of politics in Willow.

Holmes, interviewed by phone as he stood on New Orleans' Bourbon Street last week, had an immediate and blunt answer when asked about the letter.

"They need to stick to putting out fires and stay out of politics," he said. "They don't understand the budget process and the financing of all of these things."

The people of Willow voted on whether to increase taxes to help fund fire services three years ago, he said. "And the people of Willow turned it down."

Old tankers, moldy station

The department's fire station along the Parks Highway holds some of the oldest tankers and engines in the Mat-Su Borough, including a 13-speed water truck from 1975. Offices, built in 1982 as a portable school classroom, are now plagued by mold and potential asbestos. A lack of fire stations and water supply mean home insurers view people living more than 5 miles from a station as having no fire protection at all.

Willow, approved by Alaskans in 1976 as the new state capital but never developed as such, today holds about 2,000 residents scattered across 100 square miles of forest and tundra flats. Many live far from the main fire station. Some live in old or out-of-pocket homes.

"It just has a whole lot of challenges for a fire protection service area," said Willow Fire Chief Mahlon Greene, who was not involved in the letter sent out last week.

The department is staffed by 17 paid, on-call volunteers, but recruiting and keeping them is difficult, fire officers say. Other stations in the borough are installing fancy fitness rooms and 80-inch TVs, Greene noted. Not Willow.

"In the spring, when the snow leaks off the edges of the roof, it gets into the walls and shorts out the electric heaters. They had to disconnect them because it was dangerous," he said. "It's just not conducive to recruitment of new people, and retention."

Back to basics

Holmes and Jim Huston, Willow Chamber of Commerce president and the board's newest member, say the board does want to see the department succeed. A third member, retired firefighter Darrell Godbee, said he wasn't comfortable commenting.

"The board is all in favor of the mill rate going up so the fire department can have everything they need," Huston said. "We're not opposed to that."

The department is getting a new tanker this summer, and Greene got a new command vehicle, both he and Holmes note. They want to see a list of what else isn't being provided.

The department also needs to keep the public's trust, Holmes said. A destructive house fire Feb. 1 about 10 miles up the road to Hatcher Pass -- within sight of a fire station -- led to a tense exchange at the most recent board meeting in early February, attendees said. The board wants a formal report on why the house burned down with a station so close. Responders say the only nearby responders weren't trained to drive the available trucks at the station and another one had mechanical problems.

Holmes said the tension points to the kind of issue that could surface if Willow residents are asked once again to approve more taxes to pay for new services like the three stations and other upgrades.

"When we're still losing houses in Willow, it's going to be difficult to convince the public that more money is going to solve the problem," he said.

New stations

Holmes and Huston said the board has approved everything on the responders' list of critical issues except the three stations.

The board pushed for years for a new fire station, and instead the borough proposed the "warm storage" facilities instead of building a new station, Holmes said.

One of the three stations would be about 4 miles up Willow-Fishhook Road, one on Crystal Lakes Road and one in the Nancy Lake area. The borough already has nearly $400,000 in grants secured for Willow-Fishhook, $500,000 for Crystal Lakes and $600,000 for Nancy Lake, according to borough emergency services director Dennis Brodigan.

The new stations would help improve the rating insurance companies use to set homeowners' premiums, Brodigan said. Residents in Meadow Lakes and Big Lake saw hundreds of dollars in insurance savings when that fire department added stations and water supply, he said.

But the Nancy Lake station is problematic because the fire department has to buy the building already on the site, Huston said. The board wants the grant language changed so the state money goes to the purchase costs.

Otherwise, the purchase price could "break" the department's reserves, Holmes said.

"If we bought it from the fund reserve, then we'd be taking money for turnout gear and safety gear," Huston said.

Borough officials have encouraged the department to get a loan instead, Holmes noted, but that would still involve payments. "In about 24 months, we'd be bankrupt, wouldn't we?"

Tax vote

While the fire service board has approved small increases over time, it's only at levels associated with a borough tax cap, fire officials say. The larger increase the firefighters and the borough seek requires a vote of fire service area residents.

Willow needs a new millage rate of 2.5 solely for fire services, or $2.50 for every $1,000 in assessed property value, several local and borough officials said. The current rate is 1.34, down from 1.37 in 2013.

The board needs to make a request to the borough Assembly to put the increase on the October ballot and voters must approve it. Holmes said that's already in the works, but he sounded doubtful voters would pass it. The borough clerk's office didn't have any record of a request to put the mill rate increase on the ballot as of Wednesday.

Fire department backers say the prior tax increase bid did get defeated by voters, but it was because short notice led to a lack of time to do much, if any, public education.

"A friendly board would have probably brought it to our attention," said Kel Jacobs, a Willow firefighter who retired in 2008 as a captain but came back to train as an engineer. "It shouldn't be us going to the board saying we need a mill rate increase. ... We just want their support."