Council hears fire dept. optionsPublished 10:09am Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Albert Lea residents could expect a $12 annual property tax increase if the city chooses to restore its Fire Department to full-time staffing levels.
That’s the estimate Albert Lea City Manager Chad Adams gave the City Council Monday during a special meeting set up to discuss the department and its future staffing.
The estimate is for the owner of a $100,000 home.
The meeting was set up Monday as the city is dealing with tight budget times with the loss of state funding and other revenue. City officials have been reviewing whether changes should take place to the department and earlier this year hired Florida-based consultant firm Almont Associates to examine the department.
The firm, hired for $30,000, looked at who should lead the department, the responsibilities of the firefighters and the staffing of the department.
After researching and reviewing the firm’s findings, Adams presented two options to the council for where to take the department. Both options included having a public safety director who oversees the police and fire departments, along with a deputy fire chief who would supervise three fire captains and have other additional duties. One captain position would be eliminated.
One option called for restoring full-time staffing levels and the other option called for reducing staffing by one person on each shift.
Adams said the option to reduce the staffing by one person on each shift would also require a property tax increase of about $8 annually for a $100,000 home owner, to allow for accounting changes for the cleaning of City Hall and the hiring of additional paid on-call firefighters. Equipment needs would be covered by fire interest funding.
In the last few years, the department has shared a fire chief with the Police Department, and there have been four captains and 11 firefighters. Two of the firefighter positions have been filled with temporary part-time employees as the city has reviewed the department. The department has also been assisted by the Albert Lea Township Fire Department’s 16 budgeted volunteers who are paid when on-call for the city’s fire department.
The following is a breakdown of the two options Adams presented to the council.
He said he could support both options, although there are drawbacks and risks to each.
Option No. 1
The first option Adams presented to the council was to restore the department to having five firefighters on duty at full-time levels.
This would be in addition to having a deputy fire chief mostly during normal business hours at City Hall. This person could also be available for callbacks.
Adams said this option allows for high quality response times and maintaining current service levels.
Firefighters would also be able to be utilized for other needs, including for inspections, code enforcement and City Hall maintenance.
The option would follow the policy that requires a mandatory minimum of four firefighters be at the scene of a fire — two outside and two inside — before firefighters can battle a blaze from inside.
This option is estimated to be an increase of about $140,000 in the budget, or a 3 percent levy increase. This does not include any other potential debt service levy increases.
Adams said the main risk in this option is long-term sustainability, though he is optimistic it could be done.
This option would result in a $12 per year increase in property taxes on a $100,000 home in Albert Lea.
Option No. 2
The second option called for moving to a four-firefighter shift.
Adams said no overtime would be granted to schedule the minimum four-person staffing required to enter a structure fire.
That means if a firefighter was on vacation and there was a fire, the department would have to rely on the deputy fire chief to be called into that position or wait for a paid on-call firefighter to arrive.
Adams said though the option is not as good as the first option, it still allows for high quality response times and a maintaining of services.
The risk would be not knowing if there would always be four firefighters on staff.
Adams said for every minute of delay there is in getting that fourth person at a fire, a fire can grow exponentially.
He said this option is estimated to be an increase of about $100,000 to the department, or an about 2 percent levy increase, including the hire of additional paid on-call firefighters.
Adams said this option would be more cost effective than the first option, but there is the risk of increased damage to structures if four firefighters are not readily available.
This option would result in a $8 per year increase in property taxes on a $100,000 home in Albert Lea.
Albert Lea Mayor Vern Rasmussen said his biggest concern is sustainability. While the first option is what most people would like, he did not know whether it would be sustainable in 10 or 15 years.
The council will continue discussion on the topic during its Thursday preagenda workshop, and then the public will have the opportunity to weigh in about the proposals during the regular Monday City Council meeting.
Adams said at that time he will give the same presentation he gave during the special meeting Monday.
On Sept. 10, the council is slated to set its preliminary tax levy for 2013.