Anchorage Assembly gives firefighters more money for overtime, but chief says strategic closures should continue

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The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday voted to transfer $ 175,000 of unspent funds from the city’s health department budget to fund overtime for the fire department after the announcement earlier this month that the service would implement strategic shutdowns to reduce costs.

But Fire Chief Doug Schrage said the funds will not cover all of the department’s planned overruns for the year, so planned closures will continue regardless.

The closures are expected to begin Friday and will reduce overtime by taking some equipment, and therefore the staff who operate it, out of service during night shifts when emergencies tend to be less numerous. No station will be completely closed – instead, the department will take one or two pieces of equipment out of service from larger stations where there are several. Geographically isolated areas, such as Eagle River, will not be included in the closures as it would take more time for crews from other stations to respond to emergencies in those areas.

Schrage said the plan is not without risk, but called it a “calculated risk” and called it a reasonable approach to managing budget problems while maintaining public safety.

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“There are many possibilities which could, although they have not historically (…) submerged our system, clearly the possibility exists, but I am convinced that it will not have this effect”, he said. he declares.

The closures have drawn criticism from the firefighters union and some members of the Anchorage Assembly who have raised concerns about the reduction in first responder services as the city grapples with COVID cases. 19 and that the city’s hospitals are under extreme pressure.

The allocation of $ 175,000 would come from unspent funds from the Anchorage Health Department’s operating budget intended to be used for overnight shelter, Assembly Member Meg Zaletel said. Because the city operates a mass healthcare facility, funds are not needed this year, she said.

The fire department is expected to spend around $ 5 million on overtime by the end of the year if there are no cuts, Schrage said at the assembly meeting. The department budgeted around $ 3.37 million for overtime and Schrage said earlier this month he had already spent around $ 3.2 million.

The allocation, he said, “will certainly reduce the amount of our overspending, but not erase it for this year.” The ministry is amending other areas of its budget to account for overspending on overtime, so it will be close to budget, Schrage said.

The ministry was expected to save between $ 70,000 and $ 125,000 by the end of the year by implementing the strategic overnight shutdowns. The ministry will exceed its budget this year, said Deputy Fire Chief Alex Boyd. Cost cuts will still be needed to bring the department closer to the budget, and the appropriations will also help, but not enough to push the department to stay on budget, he said.

“While we are very grateful for the support the Assembly is giving us, unfortunately it does not close the gap 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 next year to manage the budget.

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

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

“The funding amount comes from their statement that it would save so 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 shutdowns, they are not without risk. “

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