Fire board talks budget plans
Brainerd Fire Department customers can expect to see about a 4 percent increase in their assessed costs for 2017. In a meeting of the Fire Advisory Board Wednesday afternoon, Brainerd Finance Director Connie Hillman explained the department's bud...
Brainerd Fire Department customers can expect to see about a 4 percent increase in their assessed costs for 2017.
In a meeting of the Fire Advisory Board Wednesday afternoon, Brainerd Finance Director Connie Hillman explained the department's budget plans to the board, and outlined the impact the recent department restructuring had on the budget.
The 2017 assessments for fire service will be considered by the townships in the department's service district at the annual townships meeting in March of 2016.
The 2017 assessments aren't set in stone, and won't be until more information becomes available in the coming months, Hillman said. Also at issue is Crow Wing Township, which appears to be on the fence about staying in the service district.
In June, Crow Wing Township informed the department the township would be contracting with Little Falls Fire Department for fire protection services starting in 2017. At the board's August meeting, however, Crow Wing Township Supervisor Mark Platta informed the board the township would be retracting its letter of withdrawal.
But Wednesday, Platta informed the board the other two members of the township board won't rescind the letter of withdrawal "at this time." Greg Smith and Dave Schultz are the two other Crow Wing Township supervisors.
"I think they're going to play it out to the end," Platta said. "To the last date they can say, 'We do want to have the service back.'"
Hillman said because the township has already withdrawn for 2017, at some point in 2016, the township would need to come to board requesting to rejoin the service district.
Platta said one township board supervisor wants to stick with the decision to go with the Little Falls Fire Department, while the other supervisor "doesn't want to say anything."
Crow Wing Township's indecision creates issues for the other townships when they consider the 2017 assessments at the March 2016 township meeting. If they don't know if the township is in the service district or not, the townships won't know what assessment numbers to consider, Hillman said.
Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle offered the services of some members of the board, including himself, "to explain the impact of their delay on the budget process."
Platta said he'd welcome the input and assistance, and Houle, Hillman and Fire Chief Tim Holmes made plans to come to the township board's Dec. 15 meeting.
"The message I would like to send to them is, if you would like to be in, that's fine, if you'd like to be out, that's fine," Houle said. "That is your choice, I'm not here to question your judgment about what's good for your township. I would just like to know, because it makes a difference to everyone else."
Crow Wing Township might want to rethink their decision, Brainerd City Council President Gary Scheeler said. The cancellation letter was sent June 1, Holmes took over as fire chief in July and the department was recently restructured, so much has changed since the decision, Scheeler said.
Baxter Mayor Darrel Olson asked Platta if his township residents were aware the township would be going to Little Falls for fire service, which is farther away from the township than Brainerd.
"Some of them do," Platta responded. "And they have contacted us."
Olson said when Fort Ripley chose to split from the Brainerd Fire Department and go with the Little Falls Fire Department, residents were shocked when Little Falls starting showing up to fires.
"They had no knowledge they had pulled out," Olson said. "I just think it's important that people know who their representatives are going with."
It is possible to divide a township into two fire service districts, Holmes said. Residents closer to the Brainerd Fire Department could continue to be served by the department, while those farther away could be served by a different department. Hillman said a township had previously done just that.
"You have more than one option," Holmes said. "Instead of just going strictly with Brainerd or strictly with Little Falls, or whoever you're choosing."
"These things have all been discussed," Platta responded.
It may be cheaper for a township to go somewhere else for fire service, Holmes said. But a change in service could result in longer response times, which may put the expense back on residents in the form of higher insurance rates.
"What all of that is going to do might far outweigh the benefit of changing service," Holmes said.
"You're preaching to the wrong person," Platta responded, implying the case would need to be made to his fellow township supervisors.
At this point, Hillman said, the other service district members should work with the knowledge that Crow Wing Township won't return to the district in 2017.
Scheeler said he felt Fort Ripley and East Gull Lake, which had also left the service district, might now come back with the changes at the fire department.
"If they come back, it's going to help everybody," Scheeler said. "This is kind of a team effort where I think everybody should stay together."
At a previous Fire Advisory Board meeting, Holmes presented a plan for the department's future capital needs. Wednesday, he reiterated the need to continue to save for these large purchases coming in the next 5-10 years.
"My concern would be, and it's what has happened in the past, is pushing this down the road another year or another two years," Holmes said. "I just don't think we can keep kicking the can down the road. All we're doing is delaying the inevitable."
Eliminating the five full-time equipment operators resulted in an overall net gain of $126,000 between the 2015 budget and the 2016 preliminary budget. The preliminary budget includes $82,000 for capital expenses, of which $45,000 will be used to replace a 2004 Chevrolet Tahoe and $37,000 will be saved for planned future replacement of self-contained breathing apparatus gear.
The department also plans to purchase a $530,000 fire truck in 2016, covered by $100,000 from the equipment fund while bonding for the remaining portion.
Holmes said he likes to keep a good amount saved in the equipment fund, in case something major breaks and needs to get replaced immediately.
"I certainly hope with the maintenance we're doing, and the preventative stuff we're doing," Holmes said. "But things do happen and things break."
Houle said he was happy to see the department taking the savings from the restructuring and putting them into equipment.
"It's an appropriate use of those funds," Houle said. "That's what we had talked about."
Brainerd City Administrator Jim Thoreen was a volunteer firefighter in Bemidji for a time, and he said it gave him an appreciation of the equipment needed to fight a fire. Simply put, he said, it needs to work and be reliable.
"When I see our firefighters go rescue somebody, go put out a fire," Thoreen said, "I want to make sure that we've got the best available equipment we can give them."
SPENSER BICKETT may be reached at 218-855-5859 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/spenserbickett .