Orono council discusses fire contract change

OronoLogoBy Sean Miner
The Pioneer

Though ultimately voting to maintain the status quo, the Orono City Council on April 11 discussed changing which nearby fire department services the very eastern edge of the city.

The vast majority of the city’s parcels (about 94 percent) are served by the Long Lake Fire Department. However, the remaining 6 percent have been served by the Wayzata Fire Department.

The council discussed terminating this contract with the Wayzata Fire Department when it comes to an end this year, and placing this area under the service of the Long Lake Fire Department. The impetus for this discussion was cost-based.

As detailed in the city council packet, the contract service cost for Wayzata’s service is $29,234 annually. The Long Lake Fire Department would be able to provide service to the area for just $8,168, saving the city $21,066 a year.

But, according to data kept by the Wayzata Fire Department and an estimate from the Long Lake Fire Department, this change would result in higher response times for emergencies in the considered area.

Wayzata Fire Department is an average distance of 1.9 miles from each property in that area, and in the last two years has had an average response time of 6.92 minutes. Long Lake Fire Department is an average of 3.5 miles from those properties, and by its estimate, would have an average response time of 8.64 minutes.

Both of the average response times are under the National Fire Protection Association standard of 10 minutes. The council’s discussion centered around whether the increased response time for that area would be worth the decreased cost.

Councilman Aaron Printup suggested that the savings would be worth it.

“I want to make sure, heading into this, that the discussion is not one of fear,” said Printup. “There are many moving parts. At the end of the day, I believe that we’ll meet the needs, because of mutual aid and auto-starts.”

Printup pointed out that police are often the first on-scene at emergencies. He also noted that Wayzata Fire Department receives an average of 20 calls per year form the considered area, and in the last three years, none of them have been fire calls.

1-P LLFD logo S-CMYKCouncilman Dennis Walsh weighed in, pointing out that the other components of emergency services would remain the same.

“We’re not changing the first responders, we’re not changing the ambulance,” said Walsh. “We’re not changing any of that. That is all staying exactly the way it is. It’s just the fire engine component.”

Having delivered a notice to the properties that would be affected by the change, the city had received several letters, some supporting the change and some opposing it.

The council opened a public hearing before continuing discussion, during which several citizens spoke. Every citizen that addressed the council expressed opposition to the change.

Orono resident Robert Howe was one who spoke. Having practiced medicine himself, he expressed concern at the increased response time, and what that might mean for medical calls, particularly cardiac events.

“We know quite well that the first 24 hours after a heart attack are critical,” said Howe. “We’ve saved many lives in that first-day response. For the same reason … the response time is absolutely critical to survival.

“One reason that this country has improved so much in coronary car is emergency response times,” continued Howe. “Two minutes more is too much more.”

Another resident, Dennis Johnson, relayed a story from the last decade in which response time may have made a significant impact on a fire call. According to Johnson, an attic fire started in a neighbor’s house, and the responding firemen said that if they’d arrived even a few minutes later, the whole house may have collapsed.

“When I hear that emotion shouldn’t be a part of this, the only part of this that makes sense to me is that there are moving parts,” said Johnson. “The only moving parts that really matter to me are my neighbors.”

Katie Simpson, a resident of the area, pointed out that her household had called for the Wayzata Fire Department’s service, and said that they had been the first emergency services on the scene.

Following the public hearing, Councilwoman Lizz Levang immediately made a motion to affirm the current agreement. Mayor Lili McMillan expressed support for the motion.

“Our job is really to figure out how to deliver services effectively and at a reasonable cost for our constituents,” said McMillan. “I’m willing to pay a couple extra bucks on my taxes to know that the folks in eastern Orono have effective fire service.”

Levang also weighed in on the discussion.

“Essential services are just that — they’re essential,” said Levang. “This would represent a decrease in service. Chief Van Eyll is clear about that — he cannot meet the standards that are coming out of Wayzata.”

“If Orono needs to cut its budget, is fire service where we really want to cut?” continued Levang. “I don’t think so.”

Printup maintained that the difference in response time did not justify the extra money.

WFD logo“It’s my philosophical belief that, if I can provide the same or similar service for fewer tax dollars, I should stand between you, the taxpayer, and you, the tax-spenders,” said Printup. “I’m glad this has finally seen the light of day.”

City administrator Jessica Loftus pointed out that the price was a small chunk of the city’s total annual fire budget of $395,000. She relayed that, for the owner of a $250,000 house in Orono, the $21,066 difference represents an extra $1.76 on their annual tax bill.

Councilman Jim Cornick Jr. said that he didn’t feel there was enough information for the council to make a truly informed decision. But, he said that, without that information, he didn’t think making the change was the right decision.

“When this whole process started, I told myself I wanted to remain neutral … and make my decisions if there was a compelling reason to make a change,” said Cornick. “At this point, I don’t see a compelling reason to change. I would be against the change at this point.”

In spite of the disagreement, council and city staff agreed that the service provided by Wayzata Fire Department was entirely adequate. Loftus said that she had never heard a complaint made against its service.

“Without a doubt, they’re all dedicated,” echoed Printup.

The council eventually voted to keep the fire contract as is by a vote of 3-2. Printup and Walsh voted against the motion.

The next Orono City Council meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Monday, April 25 at Orono City Hall. The city’s annual Open Book meeting regarding property valuation will be held from 4 to 6:30 p.m. on the same day.

Contact Sean Miner at [email protected]