Saxman and South Tongass residents are one step closer to voting on a ballot measure that would combine their fire and EMS service areas, but keep their water service separate.

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted unanimously Monday to approve a first reading of an ordinance placing the issue on the Oct. 1 ballot.

The South Tongass Service Area already provides fire and EMS to Saxman, but according to borough information, Saxman pays only for the EMS service. That is a $10,000 annual fee.

The service area and Saxman do have a memorandum of understanding covering fire service, but no payments can be identified. Assistant Borough Manager Cynna Gubatayao gave a brief explanation of the issue. She said the two sides have been working on a solution for at least the last three or four years.

The ballot measures, one for each area, are the most recent plan.

“So, if both ballot measures pass, then on Oct. 15th, we’d start advertising for the service area board member applications,” she said. “In December, the borough mayor would appoint the service area board members, the new service area would be formed Jan. 1, 2014, and then the new property taxes in the area would be due July 1, and delinquent after Sept. 30th.”

Gubatayao said the borough likely will schedule public meetings before Election Day to provide information about the ballot measures.

If the measures don’t pass, the South Tongass Service Area will try to negotiate a new agreement with Saxman, but then will consider other options, such as discontinuing fire service for that community.

“The service area board of directors has specifically stated that they need to see an end to this process,” Gubatayao said. “If payment for the services isn’t received either through the taxes that would be generated through the vote of from the City of Saxman, that they are going to recommend that the Borough Assembly allow them to stop providing fire service. They’ve made it very clear that nobody really wants to go there. They don’t want to have to take this action.”

Linda Randall, chair of the South Tongass Water and Fire Service Area, spoke during Monday’s public hearing. She asked the Assembly to modify the ordinance by changing the makeup of the proposed new service area board from five members to seven. She also asked that a proposed tax be removed from the ballot language.

The Assembly asked borough staff to bring back a proposed amendment to the ordinance that would include the changes Randall requested.

One concern raised by the Saxman IRA Council is whether joining the South Tongass Service Area would affect the community’s rural designation, which allows residents to qualify for federal subsistence rights, among other benefits.

Borough Attorney Scott Brandt-Erichsen said he doesn’t have an answer to that concern.

“There are agencies in the state or federal government that weigh in on these in making determination,” he said. “They make their determination based on a number of factors. There’s no way that we can give the Organized Village of Saxman assurance that joining together in a fire and EMS service area will not be a factor  which an individual in Washington would consider in evaluating whether they should continue to be a subsistence area.”

Assembly Member Glen Thompson asked whether the borough could try to find out. Brandt-Erichsen suggested that another borough official make those calls, because when attorneys call, it tends to make people nervous.

The ordinance must come back to the Assembly for a public hearing and second vote before it is adopted. That action is scheduled for July 15th

Also on Monday, the Assembly approved a $338,000 grant to help fund OceansAlaska, which produces seed for Alaska shellfish farmers.