A vote to not eliminate the six full-time fire equipment operators in the Brainerd Fire Department effective May 1 failed by a single vote at Monday's Brainerd City Council meeting.
Instead, the council approved pushing back the layoffs to July 1.
The council also heard several comments from the public opposed to cuts in programs in the parks and recreation department but took no action Monday in a meeting that was still in progress at 11:30 p.m.
The vote followed more than an hour and-a-half of discussion by the public and the council members and came about three weeks after the council voted to eliminate full-time fire equipment operators and go to a fire department manned by paid on-call firefighters.
It was council member Bob Olson, maker of the March 16 motion to eliminate the six positions, who on Monday offered a motion to rescind the decision. The motion failed with a 4-3 vote, with council members Olson, Kelly Bevans and Kevin Goedker in favor and council members Anne Nelson Fisher, Lucy Nesheim, Bonnie Cumberland and Mary Koep voting against.
"I don't think I made the right decision," Olson said. "I do think we as a council owe it to the citizens, whether it takes another meeting, two meetings, whatever, we need to get this right."
Fisher's motion to delay eliminating the positions until July 1 was approved by a 6-1 vote, with Koep against. Delaying the elimination of the full-time positions would allow time for paid on-call firefighters to be trained to run fire trucks, it was argued.
After the vote, Goedker, as council president, said it was important to support what the council decided and that it was "frustrating to keep flopping back and forth." Goedker also said he would have no problem talking about the fire department layoffs at every council meeting.
Olson also said the issue would be back before the council. "I guarantee you," he said.
Koep said the council made the right decision March 16. She said the city needs to make structural changes. She said the council shouldn't continue with free-for-alls concerning the fire department.
"There's nothing more damaging to the whole idea of governance and to a council elected to represent and work in the best interest of the people to continue to go back and forth," Koep said.
It marked the third meeting the issue had been discussed since being proposed by City Administrator Dan Vogt. At a special meeting on March 29, also called by Olson to readdress the elimination of the full-time fire equipment operators, the council took no action to change its March 16 decision.
The March 16 meeting dealt not just with the fire department but with $671,475 in cuts in all city funds and departments. For the fire department, the savings was $90,000 for 2010 and about $500,000 for 2011.
However, the nearly $500,000 savings in 2011 doesn't include proposals to hire a deputy fire chief or a fire marshal/inspector, add additional paid on-call firefighters, contracting for equipment and grounds maintenance and training.
Those issues will be addressed by the Personnel and Finance Committee at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Monday at Brainerd City Hall.
Taking all those additional costs into account, retired firefighter Denny Bollig told the council the savings was closer to $89,000.
Bollig, who served 28 years as a paid on-call firefighter with 17 of those years also as a full-time fire equipment operator, addressed in depth a number of his concerns with the elimination of the six full-time fire equipment operators.
Bollig noted that when he was hired in 1980 the person he replaced said he wouldn't have a job long because Brainerd was going to an all-volunteer fire department.
"Every time there's an economic downturn in the city, the council asks if an all-volunteer fire department would work in Brainerd," Bollig said. "Make the same decision that your predecessors made, that there's value in a combination department."
Bollig also noted that the Legislature last week passed a bill, which Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed, that would result in Brainerd losing $287,000 in aid from the state instead of the $683,000 originally proposed by Pawlenty.
For 2011, the city would see a decrease in local government aid of $261,000 from what was expected at the end of the last legislative session compared with Pawlenty's proposal of $438,335.
It was with Pawlenty's proposal to cut $683,000 in local government aid to Brainerd in 2010 that the council on March 16 cut $671,475 in funds and staff.
Olson asked that Bollig meet with the city's finance department to discuss how each group arrived at its actual savings.
Bollig also noted that there have been several comparisons of Brainerd with Alexandria, which operates a volunteer fire department. He said Alexandria requires firefighters to live within five minutes of the fire station, where most Brainerd firefighters live eight to 10 minutes away; Alexandria firefighters are required to make 70 percent of the fire runs to remain in good standing while Brainerd only requires 33 percent and Alexandria's operating budget was $500,000 for a paid on-call department, while Brainerd's was about $340,000 for a combination department.
Full-time fire equipment operator Charlie Dunemann presented the council with a petition signed by 26 paid on-call firefighters who supported the Brainerd Fire Department as a combination full-time and paid on-call department.
A woman from Baxter said her concern was response time. Brainerd resident Jeff Czeczok said the decision to cut the full-time fire equipment operators was the wrong one because of safety, not money. Wendy Davis, wife of full-time fire equipment operator and firefighter Lance Davis, said all firefighters' wives are concerned with safety.
On Monday, the Personnel and Finance Committee received an action plan from Fire Chief Fred Underhill that called for a fire marshal/maintenance position; dividing response to the trucks by paid on-call officers and firefighters in a rotating schedule; holding training for emergency driving and pump training April 10-11 and April 17-18; authorizing hiring five paid on-call members this year and five more in 2011; utilizing city staff and outside vendors for maintenance; and having dispatching from the fire hall during normal working hours and by Crow Wing County at night.
MATT ERICKSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5857.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.