Story last updated at 4:46 p.m. Thursday, October 17, 2002

Assembly grants tax break to some firefighters, EMTs
By Hal Spence
Morris News Service-Alaska

SOLDOTNA -- Volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians in the unincorporated parts of the borough are now eligible for a partial exemption on their borough property taxes, a benefit meant to recognize what they provide to their communities.

By a 7-2 vote Oct. 8, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly enacted Ordinance 2002-38, granting the property tax exemption on $10,000 of assessed value. The law will lower the taxes of a qualifying volunteer by $65 a year.

To qualify for the borough exemption, a volunteer must be active in a state-recognized first-responder service, registered fire department or a certified ambulance service located in the borough and be certified as a firefighter or EMT by the state. Other rules apply, such as if more than two members of one household are volunteers, no more than two exemptions will be allowed for the property. The two exemptions would not affect the borough's residential property exemption on $10,000 worth of assessed value.

While the exemption idea enjoyed majority support on the assembly, some members said it gave them pause.

Paul Fischer of the Central District suggested service areas consider paying volunteers stipends instead. He also noted that the ordinance makes no provision for extending the tax benefit to volunteers who rent, rather than own their homes.

Noting a serious shortage of volunteers across the state, the Alaska Legislature passed Senate Bill 4 this year authorizing municipalities to provide such exemptions for qualified volunteers beginning Jan. 1 as a kind of incentive. A similar measure already has been passed by the City of Homer, and Seward has indicated interest, according to Shane Horan, director of assessing. Other borough cities have not taken any action.

Fischer, who eventually voted for the measure, sounded a word of caution.

"I agree there is a shortage of volunteers," he said. "There's also a shortage of nurses, yet we have no benefits for nurses to attract more nurses here."

Assembly member Betty Glick of Kenai also raised concerns about fairness. She said she meant no disrespect to the commitment of volunteers, but the assembly must be cautious about exemptions.

Assembly member Pete Sprague of Soldotna said he had difficulty with the ordinance as well, noting that the state had declared that there was a crisis in recruiting and keeping qualified EMS volunteers statewide.

He said he wants to see the state step up and provide financial help rather than hand it off to the municipalities.

Assembly member Chris Moss of Homer said no one volunteers or is likely to for a few dollars a year in tax breaks. Thus, the ordinance isn't about incentives so much as it is a pat on the back for a job well done. "This is not a money thing," he said. "This is a validation of the work they do."

Mayor Dale Bagley, a co-sponsor, said he's heard from emergency services organizations around the borough that are reporting high turnover. If the small gesture provides incentive for someone to stay on as a volunteer, it would be worth it, he said. Only Glick and Sprague voted against the measure.

In other business, the assembly accepted and reappropriated state funds for several projects including $130,000 to the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Service Area for a response vehicle and equipment;

The assembly also:

  • Authorized Mayor Bagley to seek competitive bids on fire hazard fuel-reduction timber sales on the lower Kenai Peninsula. It is part of the ongoing spruce bark beetle mitigation program.

  • Introduced Ordinance 2002-39 amending numerous provisions of the borough sales tax code aimed at making the system fairer and easier to understand and implement. The first of several public hearings is scheduled for the meeting of Nov. 19.

    Hal Spence is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.