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Brainerd City Council: Council approves fire department 'paid on-call' restructuring

The resolution passed on a unanimous vote, and prior to the vote, each council member explained how they came to their decision to vote for the restructuring. BrainerdDispatch.com Illustration

The Brainerd City Council Monday night approved a resolution restructuring the Brainerd Fire Department from a mix of full-time and paid on-call firefighters to a fully paid on-call department.

A group consisting of Fire Chief Tim Holmes, city officials and representatives from the Minnesota Professional Firefighters, the firefighters union, have been working on restructuring discussions for about three months. The department currently has five full-time equipment operators who work over three shifts to staff the fire hall 24 hours per day.

City Attorney Eric Quiring said adopting the resolution means the ongoing discussions will now focus on the council's adoption of the resolution.

The resolution passed on a unanimous vote, and prior to the vote, each council member explained how they came to their decision to vote for the restructuring.

Council President Gary Scheeler said the council wasn't "plowing new ground here." Of the 781 fire departments in Minnesota, 17 are full-time departments and 73 are combination full-time/paid on-call departments, he said. The rest are entirely paid on-call departments, like the structure Brainerd is moving to.

The department has a pressing need for new equipment, Scheeler said, which played a role in his decision.

"Do you want real good personnel, which we do have, and not be able to get a truck?" Scheeler asked. "That's a decision that I quickly made, we need new trucks."

Council member Mary Koep said two issues that stood out for her on the issue were response time and insurance service office ratings. A meeting with fire chiefs from Elk River, Hutchinson and Fergus Falls, who all oversee paid on-call departments, "made me feel more comfortable with the potential decision," she said.

"I believe response time would not suffer," Koep said.

She echoed Scheeler's calls for a need for improved equipment, and said some communities that have improved their ISO ratings did it in part because of investments in newer, better equipment.

"I am going to support the motion, but I really did struggle with it," Koep said. "But I think we have to be realistic."

Council members make difficult decisions, council member Dave Pritschet said, but this decision was "more difficult than most." But the department "can't keep going down the same road," he said.

"We can hire 20 more firefighters, but if the truck breaks down, you're not going to be able to do anything," Pritschet said.

A report on the restructuring from Holmes found in the past six months, 80 percent of the time there has only been one full-time equipment operator at the fire hall. There needs to be two firefighters on the truck for it to leave for a call, so the department has "pretty much been a paid on-call department for some extent," Pritschet said.

"Our responsibility isn't ultimately to keep city jobs within the city," Pritschet said. "It's to provide the best service for the best price."

Council member Gabe Johnson said he met with Holmes, who was able to answer the questions he had about the restructuring. The restructuring helps address rising costs as well as equipment needs, he said.

"We need to figure out how to best manage the limited funds we have in the city," Johnson said.

Council member Chip Borkenhagen said he's served on the Fire Advisory Board for the past two years, so he was "part of the angst we all felt" looking at the issue.

"This is not an easy decision for us to make at all," Borkenhagen said. "As difficult as it is to do, I certainly will support it."

Council member Sue Hilgart has served on the Civil Service Commission for years, she said, so her "heart is with the fire and the police" on the issue.

"It makes a very painful place to be," Hilgart said. "Because I do have a heart for the police and fire and public safety."

The paid on-call department gives structure to the fire coverage, Hilgart said, and allows Holmes to schedule more firefighters during busier times like holiday weekends. It also provides more flexibility if townships serviced by the department decide to look elsewhere for fire coverage.

"We're able to adjust and make decisions that don't leave us holding the bag," Hilgart said. "It gives us an opportunity to put more equipment on the road."

Council member Kelly Bevans said he struggled with the decision in thinking about the partnerships the city has forged with those serviced by the fire department. But ultimately, he "has to be responsible to the people that elected me to provide not the best fire service that money can buy, but the best we can afford," he said.

"I can only do what I think is best for the city of Brainerd," Bevans said.

Prior to the vote on the resolution, Bill Kronstedt, Maple Grove Township supervisor and chair of the Fire Advisory Board, addressed the council.

On Wednesday, the board took no action on restructuring the department from the full-time/paid on-call structure to a fully paid on-call department. Instead, the township supervisors who sit on the board asked for time to take the information on restructuring the department back to their respective boards at their next meetings in order to get input on the issue.

"This information was quite astounding," Kronstedt said.

Kronstedt said the board appreciated the chance to provide input on the issue, because in the past, decisions were often made without the chance for the board to provide input. He said his feelings on the issue were mixed, and he understood "both sides of coin."

Because of the current financial position of the department, "it only makes sense to go with the paid on-call," Kronstedt said. But people outside the city of Brainerd also are concerned about the comfort level the combination full-time/paid on-call department provides, he said.

"We want to feel that there's somebody there that's going to jump in that truck right away," Kronstedt said. "Even though sometimes that's not realistic because there's not enough people to do so."

At the Wednesday Fire Advisory Board meeting, Holmes provided information on what the paid on-call department will look like. The paid on-call department will have three full-time positions: a fire chief, Holmes; an administrative specialist, Elaine Kraemer; and a fire marshal/deputy chief. The department will increase its paid on-call payroll budget to accommodate the additional paid on-call firefighters the department would hire.

The estimated payroll costs of the proposed structure amount to $677,734. The estimated payroll costs for the current structure are $943,663. This creates an estimated savings for 2016 of $265,929.

Holmes said Wednesday discussions with several insurance agencies in the area revealed no agencies indicated their rates would change based on the restructuring. An ISO representative who performed the city's latest ISO survey also said the city's ISO rating of four wouldn't be affected by the move to a paid on-call department.

There's also no data to indicate response times will be affected by the restructuring, Holmes said Wednesday, because Brainerd has never had a paid on-call department before.

SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or spenser.bickett@brainerddispatch.com. Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

 
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