City, townships tout new fire deal

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont City Council recently approved a five-year agreement with the United Township Co-op Fire Association. A quick unanimous vote by the council was the culmination of months of meetings, ideas and compromises to develop an equitable and sustainable agreement.

United Townships includes all of Rutland, Pleasant Prairie, East Chain and Silver Lake townships and at least half of Fairmont, Fraser, Rolling Green and Center Creek townships. The area encompasses 217 sections.

The negotiating committee was comprised of five representatives from these townships, two Fairmont firefighters, two Fairmont council members and two members of the city management team.

Mike Hum-pal, Fairmont city administrator, and Dan Whitman, treasurer of the fire association, who both participated in the negotiations, explained the process and the changes to the pact.

“There was never any question on the competencies of our firemen. They are some of the best around,” Humpal said.

“We never questioned the quality of the firefighters,” Whitman agreed. He talked about a recent drill held near his home that the Fairmont firefighters and those from surrounding communities. He was greatly impressed with the crews as they controlled the burning house. “They’re well-trained. They know exactly what they’re doing, and God bless them for doing it.”

The goal, Humpal said, was to develop an agreement for a sustainable program to provide these firefighters with the equipment they need to deliver the quality of service they provide and to ensure that all parties paid a fair share.

“It’s been over 60 years since the cooperation was formed, and it had been a very long time since we changed any part of the agreement,” Whitman said. “Our primary goal was to maintain that good relationship and meet the needs of both the townships and the city and the financial needs of a modern fire department and yet allow for each of us to take care of our residents.”

“We looked at a hundred different ways,” Humpal said. “There’s a whole formula that the League of Minnesota Cities and the Minnesota Townships Association came up with, but we thought it was kind of convoluted. What we looked at was what was practical, what was equitable and what we can afford between the two parties that will provide us with the equipment we need and the training our firefighters need.”

“And not be an onus on the property owner either,” Whitman said. “For years, the townships have levied for our equipment, and the city levied for their equipment, but there were things that needed to happen, as far as training, that we (co-op) have not participated in. We recognized that we needed to participate.”

The city and the townships each have unique needs for firefighting equipment, and that’s why both separately own equipment to meet their primary needs and jointly own other equipment. The city’s ladder truck would be needed in the event of a fire in a multi-storied building in Fairmont, but not so much in the rural areas. The townships utilize their pumper trucks to haul water to rural areas where there are no hydrants. Yet there are possibilities for using a pumper truck in a remote area of the city with no hydrants or the ladder truck for a tall bin or building on a farm site.

The city has been paying the property, casualty and workers compensation insurance for the firefighters, as well as the retirement fund, gas, oil and minor repairs. The cost of major repairs were shared with the townships. In 2014, the city’s cost for the fire department was more than $360,000.

In the last couple of years, the city paid about $500,000 to replace the rescue truck and an additional $250,000 to replace air packs and respirators. Other equipment, like the Jaws of Life, need to be upgraded to work on newer vehicle designs.

“It’s constant,” Humpal said of the upgrades. Some of the equipment being used is from the 1980s, and finding replacement parts is becoming more and more difficult.

The city has budgeted about $385,000 to fund the fire department in 2018, plus an additional $65,000 to be set aside each year for truck replacement. By setting aside money every year for vehicle replacement, hopefully less, if any, funds will need to be borrowed to purchase a new truck. The city has a truck replacement program that goes out to 2032.

Whitman said the townships have been good about saving money to replace their firefighting equipment. Each year, the townships levy for this equipment was $150 per section, but that amount will increase as the co-op increases its contributions.

“This year, we raised it to $250, and we’ve already notified that it would go up next year in the range of $400,” Whitman said. “That’s going to allow us to continue to put away money to replace our equipment and meet the standby fees with the city. We’re looking to pay the city $220 per section as a standby fee.”

Whitman said he heard no complaints when the levy increased this year.

“The general feedback that I received is that we need to maintain our relationship with the city and keep good fire equipment,” he said.

Another change for the townships is the institution of a flat fee per fire call. When the call goes in to the fire hall, there is a flat fee for the first hour, and each additional hour will incur added charges to the property owner.

“This is a five-year contract, and as I told the City Council, everybody ‘gave’ a little bit,” Humpal said. “We met everybody’s needs. It worked out pretty well. It’s all evolved over 60 years to reflect on how things should operate today, but there’s one thing that’s been consistent over 60 years. We’re still working cooperatively.”

“There’s been a bunch of different makeups with the agreement over 60 years,” Whitman said. “It has changed many times over the years. This is just another example.”