Tuesday's Brainerd City Council meeting has something few agendas can accomplish - a standing room only crowd.
Long before the topic of proposed city budget cuts - for the fire, parks and police departments, specifically - began, the red shirts in attendance provided obvious support for the fire department and indicated the reason many people were at city hall. Extra folding chairs were brought out to accommodate the large gathering with about 73 attending.
Charlie Dunemann, full-time fire equipment operator and president of Local 4725 firefighters' union, addressed the council before a 5-2 vote to cut six full-time fire equipment operators and go to a paid on-call system. Brainerd Dispatch/Kelly Humphrey
WE SPOTTED: » Brainerd City Council Meeting
After the city council vote of 5-2 laid off the six full-time fire equipment operators, firefighters and their supporters spilled out into the hallway outside the council chambers and later lingered on the sidewalk in front of city hall.
"I feel very sorry for the city," said Charlie Dunemann, full-time fire equipment operator. "I feel saddest for the whole for our city of Brainerd. You'll see less money coming into the department. You'll see a bigger increase in bills."
Dunemann said six fire equipment operators may be running for council.
Firefighters from Moorhead, Bemidji, Cloquet were among those representing cities from northern Minnesota that attended the meeting in support of counterparts in Brainerd. Half the full-time staff from Bemidji drove down for the meeting. They declined to speak.
Rick Loveland, Northern District vice president of the Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters, said cities had the option of special levies to pay for police and fire salaries but the city chose not to do it.
"Having people come out the door in the first minute-and-a-half to two minutes makes all the difference and it showed on Friday night here," Loveland said, referrring to a house fire in Brainerd and having paid staff on duty at the fire station. He said having equipment set up at the fire for the paid on-call firefighters saves precious minutes.
"They've got to make cuts," said retired firefighter Merle Gallant. "Somehow the department will make it work. You know right or wrong, somebody has to suffer out of the deal because the money plain isn't there."
And Gallant said fire departments have shown it can work.
"It's a rough deal," he said.
"It's going to be a tough ride," said paid on-call firefighter Rick Johnson.
Johnson said he worries about arriving at the scene and operating the fire hose to fight the fire while the full-time staff handled the truck and made sure the equipment was ready to go. "It's a sad, tough deal."
Kevin Goedker, Brainerd council president, remarked on the full room as a rarity. As Goedker moved the meeting to the budget talks, he said:
"I'm assuming that must be what most people are in attendance for ... I wish we had this many people worried about every issue."
The number of vehicles parked outside city hall with firefighter designations on the license plates was an early indication of the interest in the meeting.
City Administrator Dan Vogt detailed the difficult economic conditions and went through the proposed $674,225 cuts for 2010 budget year and more substantial savings in 2011 based on personnel cuts.
As Vogt presented his reasons for changing to an all on-call fire department in the face of budget cuts and proposed all full-time fire equipment operators would be laid-off, the crowd listened in silence.
The only time the crowd was animated came after Jim Schulz, parks employee, rose to speak. Schulz spoke against proposed cuts to the parks department. His voice grew emotional when he said he skated at the Gregory Park rink with his children. Schulz has been with the Brainerd Parks Department for 11 years and he maintains more than 30 pieces of equipment.
"We had a great department, a department that was growing, a parks system that was wonderful to use," Schulz said. "I feel ashamed that the public would have to lose such a service. I think the cuts go too deep. You are losing some good men, some good families in this community."
The crowd applauded. Goedker said while he appreciated the exuberance and knew a lot of emotion was involved, he asked the people to refrain from any verbal gestures during the meeting.
WE SPOTTED: » Brainerd City Council Meeting
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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