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Ed. Note: The question of "unification" has come up in several Mayorial forums. ITA has never supported unification in part because of the increased costs that would be associated with extending police and fire services to the whole borough. Here is the Advance Alaska Network's take on the issue.

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By Kevin McGehee

It's no surprise that borough mayor candidates John Myers and Hank Hove support consolidation of fire service as a borough function -- presumably on a non-areawide basis, at least at first.

Such consolidation would place the city fire departments of Fairbanks and North Pole in the unenviable position of being compared (no doubt unfavorably) with a multi-million-dollar borough fire department serving the majority of borough residents (whether they want it or not). With shiny new equipment and expensive new facilities, the borough fire department would surely win the "oohs and ahhs" competition against the leaner, generally more experienced fire crews serving the two cities.

I say "generally more experienced" because the manpower now needed by the fire departments serving the borough's fire service areas won't be sufficient to cover the entire populated area of the borough. Salcha and Two Rivers would need resident fire crews, and you can bet the volunteer crews now serving Ester, greater North Pole, the Steese area and elsewhere, will be beefed up and "professionalized" once the borough gets the power to do so. More firefighters will mean a reduction in the overall level of experience in the crews in addition to an increase in cost to the taxpayer.

With the shiny new borough fire department winning an inevitable public comparison debate against the city fire crews, first one city, and then the other, will be encouraged to dissolve its own fire department and allow the borough to have a monopoly on fire protection.

The compilation of more and more areawide power at the borough level is a stealth means of pursuing city-borough unification -- by making the cities more and more superfluous, until the residents thereof can be convinced that there is simply no point going on with what will over time become a charade.

A city without powers is no longer a city. State law, I believe, provides for the involuntary dissolution of such phantom cities, so that even if residents of, say, North Pole hold out against the idea of unification

despite having approved areawide fire and police powers (police powers will surely be next after fire), de facto unification can be achieved without their up-or-down approval. They would have lost, in bits and pieces, what they would never give up all at once. It's an old story, and never a happy one.

When John Myers announced his mayoral candidacy last January, he claimed consolidation of emergency service powers -- which would include ambulance, fire and police -- as one of his key issues. Hank Hove, with his long history of thinly veiled disdain for outlying residents, could only be for such consolidation (especially since he is backed by the incumbent borough mayor, who has, himself, a long record of favoring steps that would lead to stealth unification).

That Mr. Hove would announce his support for this step in North Pole is a sign of just how out of touch he is with people who live out here.

September 19, 1997

Editorial note: The following was writted as an addendum to the above, dated the same day:



(I should start by acknowledging that both John Myers and Hank Hove spoke out for studying fire service consolidation, not for actually doing so. This distinction requires a whole new look at the subject:)

The question had to do with creating a borough fire department that would, as the News-Miner article put it, "serve all residents."

I imagine this probably includes not only the residents of Salcha and Two Rivers, but also those who have built their homes on Haystack Mountain, north of the Chatanika River by way of the Elliott Highway -- not to mention the Weltons and several others who live along the Steese Highway beyond the Chatanika Lodge. It would also include people with homes along the Parks highway south of Skinny Dick's.

Extending fire protection to these residents will require the construction of at least five new stations (in most cases, admittedly, not much more than garages) and the acquisition of equipment to stock them -- as well as obtaining the services of firefighters to use the equipment. And even then the borough's shiny new fire department won't be able to save many more homes than the existing service areas can at a fraction of the cost -- and the service areas only cost those who live within their boundaries.

To offer substantially better protection would require construction of many more stations, with the additional equipment and manpower necessary to make them useful. At about the point where the borough fire department costs borough residents roughly twice what an existing fire service area costs its residents, it will be able to say that it provides effective fire service to all residents reachable by road.

Which would be fine if only those residents reachable by road could be taxed for the service. There are year-round homes in this borough reachable only by boat in the summer, and snowmachine in the winter. How can they be protected at a level commensurate with the taxes they'll have to pay?

Would it be the position of the borough administration and the Assembly that those people chose to live out there and be without ready access to the services they pay for? Would the borough callously ignore the fact that when those people moved out there, there was no fire service tax to pay?

I guess it depends on who's elected at the time -- but the people who are talking about wasting money to study the idea (which I can tell them *for free* is simply not feasible) are the same ones who already take the callous position suggested above: that outlying residents choose to be beyond the easy reach of borough services.

To be running for office and say, "That's a good idea, let's study it," leaves a cynical politician the convenient "out" of saying, once the facts are assessed, "Well, it's a good idea but we just can't do it right now." Or, as Bill Clinton did on the middle-class tax cut, "Ah worked harder than Ah ever have to make it happen, but Ah jist couldn't fahnd a way to do it."

The veteran Assemblyman and the retired cop both know better.

And I'm very disappointed in Roger Shoffstall, who apparently doesn't -- but is willing to steamroll public resistance to consolidation, in the name of "safety."


The views expressed herein are entirely those of the author(s), and do not reflect those of any person or group with whom the author(s) may be affiliated, unless explicitly labeled as doing so.

North Pole, Alaska
Permission granted to anyone wishing to forward, redistribute, or broadcast this article for NON-PROFIT purposes. Profit-making publications must have express consent to reprint any AdvAK materials. Thank you.

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Donna Gilbert, President  ITA Phone (907) 456-8031.
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