PALMER — The Palmer City Council debated two ordinances that would have an effect on the backcountry to different results.
The council eventually denied Action Memorandum 20-003 to provide $1,650 to Mat-Su Search and Rescue (MATSAR) through a community council grant. After lengthy debate, Mayor Edna DeVries, Deputy mayor Linda Combs and Councilmen Steve Carrington and Richard Best voted against 20-003, failing the motion. MATSAR operates as the volunteer search and rescue outfit in the Mat-Su Valley, providing search and rescue expertise and training in coordination with law enforcement officials in the case that a person goes missing. Additionally, MATSAR has started to offer it’s own search and rescue academy attended by Village Public Safety Officers and other search and rescue volunteers statewide. Without AST funding that had previously supported the group, MATSAR came to the Palmer City Council in hopes that it would receive the same grant it did last year.
“We do quite a bit of support up at Government Peak, medical and rescue support for the ski races and mountain races and that sort of thing,” said Mark Stigar with MATSAR.
MATSAR was recently gifted a used Department of Transportation truck through the assistance of Senator Shelley Hughes, who represents Palmer. The ordinance lists funds needed to continue search and rescue efforts, as well as a gas cart and iPad for ease of map use in finding those who need to be rescued. While not a single member of the council debated the merits of supporting MATSAR, the qualifications were examined under a microscope.
“It’s a tough no but I think it has to be a no,” said Best.
Best called in from Juneau where he is working as the Chief of Staff to Representative Ben Carpenter (R-Kenai). Best called into question the language of the original community council grant ordinance, stating that activities in Hatcher Pass are not subject to grant monies because they do not occur within city limits, despite MATSAR having received the grant in years prior.
“Clearly the intent of the code is to be more expansive than just dealing with events because it talks about programs and services so the question then becomes does this sort of more specific language swallow up the intent of the program,” said city Attorney Michael Gatti.
Gatti noted that the ordinance itself contained inconsistencies in defining what qualifies as an event which would be required to occur within the city of Palmer and what does not. However, when questioned about the ability of the council to provide the $1,650 grant, Gatti said that the council retained discretion to interpret the ordinance in a number of ways and ultimately could legally award the grant monies.
“This is our community so I think we need to look at it that way because all of us care about our neighbors, our friends, our families. So I think that there’s a little bit bigger issue at stake when we’re talking about safety,” said Councilwoman Jill Valerius.
Best volunteered his own funds to support MATSAR, but maintained that the grant application fell under the qualifications for an event which did not occur within the city of Palmer. While Carrington noted that the council has pushed to market the city of Palmer as the gateway to Hatcher Pass, there was perhaps another way to support MATSAR without the community council grant.
“I do, when looking at this code, feel that we can easily interpret this as an organizational grant which is clearly listed,” said Councilwoman Sabrena Combs. “The way it is written now, this to me says that they should be able to receive the grant based upon the things that are written in the code.”
The grant for MATSAR failed 4-3, but MATSAR director Mark Stigar was asked to communicate with Palmer City Manager Nathan Wallace for possible coordination of city discretionary funds. After the failure of 20-003 and prior to the introduction of 20-004, a similar ordinance which would grant $3,000 to the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center through the same community council grant process, the council and staff continued to discuss the discretion of the council to spend the $12,000 in yearly allotted community council grant monies.
“You retain ability to make decisions however you see fit with this money,” said Wallace.
Discussion on funding the Hatcher Pass Avalanche Center verged along the same lines, determining if it was within city code for the council could support an event that occurs outside the city limits of Palmer.
“Clearly, we are not funding the program we are helping a program, which again, I am strongly in favor of this and I think that this is about the health and safety of our community,” said Valerius. “I also think it’s economically probably one of the best things we can do.”
Gatti was again asked to offer his legal expertise as to whether the grant to HPAC was within the council’s jurisdiction.
“I have to respectfully disagree with council member Best,” said Gatti.
“I am going to disagree with the attorney,” said Best.
Following a brief discussion, Councilwoman Sabrena Combs moved to call the question, effectively ending debate and forcing the council to vote before moving forward. Combs’ motion passed and Linda Combs moved over to vote in favor of the grant to HPAC, along with Valerius, Sabrena Combs and Julie Berberich.