Consultant hired to draft four-city shared fire services agreement

A Coon Rapids attorney firm will help the cities of Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis draft a joint powers agreement for a potential shared fire services program.

The Ramsey City Council was the last of the four city councils to approve a not to exceed $8,000 contract with Barna, Guzy & Steffen law firm and it was only on a 4-2 vote because Councilmember Jason Tossey is not convinced that the city of Ramsey will save any money if these four communities are under one fire district.

The Rum River Regional Fire Study Group at a meeting in April proposed moving forward with two separate consultant studies, but the Ramsey City Council did not want to address fire relief association pension questions before looking at the joint powers agreement. A not to exceed $8,000 contract will pay for a Coon Rapids law firm to work with the cities of Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis on establishing this agreement. Photo by Eric Hagen

The Rum River Regional Fire Study Group at a meeting in April proposed moving forward with two separate consultant studies, but the Ramsey City Council did not want to address fire relief association pension questions before looking at the joint powers agreement. A not to exceed $8,000 contract will pay for a Coon Rapids law firm to work with the cities of Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis on establishing this agreement. Photo by Eric Hagen

Councilmember Chris Riley does not think it is appropriate to hire a consultant when the four communities do not know if the end product will be something similar to the Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View Fire Department or if it will just entail more shared resources. Ramsey already provides full fire protection to Nowthen and Ramsey Fire Chief Dean Kapler also serves as St. Francis’ contracted fire chief.

Mayor Sarah Strommen, who has sat through numerous meetings on the Rum River Regional Fire Study Group since the fall of 2011, said they have “hit a wall” and cannot move forward  without the help of a consultant..

“We can’t answer the questions that we need to answer about governance and cost sharing until we start having a proposal on the table,” Strommen said. “Part of it is a negotiation, but part of it is what is feasible. What are our options? Without some legal advice, I don’t think we can answer those questions ourselves.”

Ramsey will shoulder two-thirds of the costs, up to $5,360. Kapler said this percentage was determined based on call volume comparisons between the communities. St. Francis will cover 21 percent of Barna, Guzy & Steffen’s contract, Nowthen will pay 10 percent and Bethel will contribute 2 percent.

The three other communities approved the contract about a month ago. The Ramsey council June 10 tabled action because it did not want to pay two-thirds of the cost of a separate $7,000 -$10,000 contract for the Van Iwaarden Associates law firm to look into how to bring the three relief associations (Ramsey-Nowthen, Bethel and St. Francis) into the same pension model Ramsey has, which the communities recognize as being the best of the three.

The relief association pension questions are not being addressed. Relief associations are separate non-profit organizations, but some communities choose to make a contribution as an incentive for the volunteer firefighters.

The joint powers agreement study that the Bethel, Nowthen, Ramsey and St. Francis city councils approved will address weighted voting of a fire district board, cost sharing percentages and whether it would be governed as a fire district with one fire chief or still multiple fire departments with more shared resources.

Oak Grove was once involved, but dropped out after the first study was completed last year because it believes these four cities are moving down the path of one joint fire department and Oak Grove did not see any evidence that this would be a more affordable option, Oak Grove Mayor Mark Korin told ABC Newspapers in September 2013.

Kapler told the Ramsey council June 24 that services that could be consolidated include recruitment and retention, administrative, firefighter turnout gear, vehicles and training.

Fire response has already evolved before this group started meeting.

“Thirty years ago, in my opinion, if a fire department asked for help it was the same thing as waiving the white flag,” Kapler said.

With implementation of mutual aid agreements across Anoka County and St. Francis having a similar arrangement with the city of Isanti, according to St. Francis City Administrator Matt Hylen, it is common to see trucks from more than one department on a fire call.

“I don’t think property owner cares if a white truck or a red truck or a yellow truck is doing the work,” Kapler said.

Anoka County already has a firefighter training academy set up so that each department can train its staff more efficiently.

The Rum River Regional Fire Study Group is just an extension of what is already in place, Kapler said.

A fire chief, firefighter and elected official from each community have been invited to each meeting over the last two-and-a-half years so there are no secrets in what is being discussed, St. Francis Mayor Jerry Tveit said. Several representatives from other fire departments have come to the meetings to share what works and does not work under their specific governance system.

Regardless of the outcome of this process, Tveit said it has been a useful exercise because of the relationships that have been forged and ideas that have been shared.

“It’s not here to consolidate for the sake of consolidation,” Kapler said of the study group. “It’s here to find ways of cooperating and we’ve done that and moved forward in different small ways over the last couple of years and will continuing looking at trying to formalize it if it makes sense.”

Eric Hagen is at eric.hagen@ecm-inc.com

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