Fireweed Place tackles fiscal future

Posted: Friday, July 13, 2001

Joy Morgan moved into an apartment at Fireweed Place about a year ago. An Alaska resident since 1949, she originally looked for senior housing in Haines, but when none was available she tried Juneau.

"I walked in here cold and said to (the manager), 'I need a place to live.' And here I am. I wouldn't think of anyplace else to live," she said.

Fireweed Place, which offers independent living to people age 55 and up, has been taking a close look at its long-term fiscal picture. Efforts to reduce city property taxes and electric bills should help, according to board members of the private nonprofit group.

Morgan, 79, said the apartment next to the State Office Building downtown provides easy access to her doctor, shopping and other activities.

"It's so handy to everything," she said.

Since it opened in 1995, Fireweed Place has never reached full occupancy, in part because of low demand for its smaller efficiency apartments, manager Lorilyn Swanson said. Occupancy currently hovers around 74 percent, she said.

The mixed-income building has 67 units, and its residents range in age from 55 to 94. About half receive housing subsidies.

"A large percentage are from this area, but more people from Juneau are moving their parents here from down south," Swanson said.

When it was built, Fireweed Place received grants from the city and the state. The Alaska Housing Finance Corp. provided 30-year mortgages worth nearly $7 million, and Senior Citizen Support Services - which runs the building - has about $4 million left to pay, Swanson said.

Board vice president Sioux Plummer said the organization is doing everything possible to address its long-term financial viability and reduce debt. While Fireweed Place is operating better than ever, a city property tax exemption and ongoing discussions with AHFC are important, she said.

"It is clearly filling a niche for the community," she said. "At this time, everything counts ... We've done everything internally to reduce operational costs and operate within our debt load."

The facility is in good standing with AHFC, and the corporation is more than willing to work with Fireweed Place to address financial concerns, AHFC officer of housing relations Steve Ashman said.

"Fireweed Place will be around for 30 years," he said.

Swanson, who has been with Fireweed Place since it opened, said the organization has made significant progress.

"We're working with Alaska Housing to restructure financing, but we need to have our property tax exempt," she said. "We're real optimistic we can work out the financing."

Earlier this year, the city assessor reduced Fireweed Place's assessed property value from $5.9 million to $5 million, and the Board of Equalization further reduced the value to $3.7 million. The changes cut Fireweed Place's taxes by $28,670 to $41,320, according to the city.

A request to give Fireweed Place a "community purpose" property tax exemption was filed late and failed to win approval from Assembly members this spring. The Assembly has asked staff members for more information about the facility and its tax exemption request, Assembly member Dale Anderson said. Until then, he is reserving judgment.

"I was pleased to vote to give them favorable property tax standing with the city to get them through tough times," he said. "We're looking at comparing them with other operations in Juneau so everybody is treated fairly and equally."

On another front, Fireweed has been successful in reducing electric bills for its residents. It went first to Alaska Electric Light and Power and then the Regulatory Commission of Alaska to ask for relief from the utility's residential demand charge. Fireweed has electric heat and was losing tenants because of high heating costs, board president Tom Dahl said.

The utility and Fireweed reached an agreement this spring, making the demand rate optional in some cases, said AEL&P director of consumer affairs David Stone. Depending on the customer, the change will result in 15 percent to 20 percent savings. The move affects some 300 consumers in Juneau.

Swanson said Fireweed Place residents noticed a difference in this month's bills.

"It's considerable when you're on a fixed income," she said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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