By Eric Hagen • Staff Writer
PART 2 OF A 3-PART SERIES
Six Lake Minnetonka area fire chiefs are brainstorming about how they might band together in a fire district to share services.
The communities of Maple Plain, Loretto, Long Lake, Mound, St. Bonifacius and Excelsior have yet to make any decisions and may include Hamel in a prospective partnership called the West Lake Fire District.
In Anoka County, the communities of Ramsey, Bethel, Nowthen and St. Francis are discussing a shared fire services plan that could mean a joint department or a formalized agreement on sharing resources.
Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler, whose department already provides full-time service to Nowthen and administrative support to St. Francis, said everyone must look beyond “their own little kingdom.”
“I think if we drop our guard a little bit and just look at the benefit of the people we’re serving, there’s some true benefits,” Kapler said.
Sharing equipment could help fire departments avoid duplicating purchases of expensive major pieces, Maple Plain Fire Chief Dave Eisinger said.
For example, Maple Plain has a stick ladder truck that can be used in areas where space is tight. Mound has a bucket truck that needs more room. When Mound needs to replace its bucket truck, surrounding departments could share in the expense.
“We know we’ve got to do something because of the changing dynamics of fire service,” Eisinger said.
Most firefighters are volunteers
About 2,000 of the 20,000 firefighters in Minnesota are career firefighters, according to Bruce West, state fire marshal and former Elk River fire chief. Although often referred to as volunteers, most do get compensated. West said there are still some firefighters out there, however, who are not paid.
Career firefighters are rare beyond the state’s largest cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, Duluth and Rochester, but there are career firefighters elsewhere, including three communities in Anoka County. Columbia Heights, Coon Rapids and Fridley have a mixture of career and paid-on-call firefighters.
West does not anticipate many more communities switching to mostly full-time firefighters because it is difficult to afford, especially for smaller communities. He said he could see cities having duty officers, meaning paid-on-call firefighters who are assigned specific times to a fire station, but cities are going to have to get creative to find a way to bring on volunteers.
The Coon Rapids Fire Department has 20 paid-on-call firefighters and 31 full-time staff who all had to be Coon Rapids volunteer firefighters for at least two years before applying for a career position, according to Coon Rapids Fire Chief John Piper, who started volunteering in 1981.
Piper said the biggest advantage of having full-time firefighters is always having people at the stations.
“Ultimately in any community the city council decides what level of service to provide in any category, whether it’s water, sewer, plowing the streets, police or fire,” Piper said.
Grants less frequent
The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave the Norwood Young America Fire Department over $300,000 five years ago for a water tanker truck.
Grants like this from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security were more common after the 9/11 terroristic attacks and formation of this new federal division, but have become more infrequent since the lowest point of the economic recession hit about five years ago, according to West.
In the next 10 years, West expects, the biggest budget challenge for departments will be needing to replace aging vehicles and equipment.
“As the economy downturned, departments were asked to do more with less or maintain what they had,” he said.
For example, the firefighter assistance grant had ranged $500 million to $600 million annually in the years following 9/11. Now it is around $200 million for a fiscal year, West said. These grants helped fire departments pay for training and equipment such as turnout gear and self-contained breathing apparatus.
“Everybody had to kind of put everything on hold to get through the recession,” Steve Zumberge, chief of the Norwood Young America Fire Department. “Now it’s going to be catch-up time, which is rough on everybody.”
The city of Eagan was able to buy a $500,000 fire engine in 2012 without needing to borrow from the bond market because it puts about $400,000 into a fire apparatus capital equipment replacement fund every year, according to Eagan Fire Chief Mike Scott. This fund currently has about $800,000 in it.
Scott said grants “were plentiful immediately following Sept. 11, 2001, but have begun to dry up since then.”
All firefighters can form nonprofit fire relief associations.
A small percentage of homeowners’ insurance premiums go into a state coffer to help fire relief associations pay retirement benefits. Municipalities also make required or voluntary contributions.
Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson said pension isn’t really used as a recruiting tool.
“After five to 10 years of service, it’s more of a retention tool,” he said.
According to the state auditor, 52.2 percent of Minnesota firefighters have less than 10 years experience.
Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Chief Nyle Zikmund said most fire relief associations were “very healthy” in 2012, according to the state auditor’s report. Net assets were $459.53 million and accrued liabilities were $448.45 million.
But Zikmund added that, with 684 relief associations in the state, “you’re going to have a few people that have messed up.”
Poor investment performance or a city council not planning for a number of retirements could negatively impact a pension fund, according to Zikmund. How this impacts firefighters and the city depends on what type of fund is set up.
All departments have a minimum years of service requirement to be partially or fully vested, but everyone must wait until their 50th birthday before they can collect.
With a defined-benefit plan, a relief association identifies a specific base dollar amount multiplied by the number of years of service. Northfield and Shakopee offered a $7,500 benefit level. So a person with 20 years of experience retiring from one of these departments would have received a $150,000 lump-sum payment.
If a defined-benefit plan goes too deep in the hole, a city could be required by state statute to make a contribution to the relief association.
In a defined-contribution plan, everyone gets an equal share of the state and municipal contributions and prorated shares of investment earnings, so firefighters in these plans are more affected by the economy, according to Kapler.
The Eden Prairie Fire Relief Association received the largest 2012 municipal contribution, at $695,910. The Eagan Fire Relief Association came in next at $409,943.
The state auditor’s report showed that 22.1 percent of the 16,490 active firefighters in Minnesota are at least 50 years old and 4 percent were 60 and older in 2012.
Zikmund said, due to a shortage of daytime volunteers, the state changed the law three of four years ago to allow firefighters to come back, after collecting, to start another pension, which is why there are still so many firefighters over the age of 50.
“We are living in a historic time of change,” Zikmund said.
Reach Eric Hagen at [email protected] Adam Gruenewald, Jeffrey Hage, Jessica Harper, Sue Van Cleaf, and Theresa Malloy contributed to this report.