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Fiery debate: Officials engage in heated discussion over fire contract, ladder truck

Star Prairie Village President Greg Gibson (left), Richmond Town Supervisor Richard Berquist and Richmond Town Chair Gary Knutson engage in discussion during the Oct. 21 meeting of the New Richmond Fire Advisory Board. (Photo by Micheal Foley)

After nearly two months of tension, the struggle for a fire contract extension among the partner municipalities of New Richmond Fire & Rescue appears to be close at hand.

After returning from closed session discussion, members of the New Richmond City Council voted Monday, Oct. 27, to allow Mayor Fred Horne to sign a five-year extension to the current fire contract the city has with the Village of Star Prairie, the Town of Star Prairie, the Town of Richmond, the Town of Stanton and the Town of Erin Prairie.

At a heated Oct. 21 Fire Advisory Board meeting, a consensus was eventually reached for each municipality to meet within seven days after the City Council’s action to gain approval from their respective bodies. If all the approvals are in place, all participating municipalities are expected to sign a five-year extension to the current contract at a special Fire Advisory Board meeting set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Though the consensus to continue the contract was reached during the Oct. 21 meeting, it didn’t come easily. The point of contention was a contract proposal the city put forth at a Sept. 4 Fire Advisory Board meeting that would have significantly changed the relationship of the city and its neighboring municipalities when it comes to fire service.

“The contract that was presented to us at the last meeting was not something that any of us would like to swallow,” said Stanton Town Chair Richard Hesselink, who serves as the chairman of the Fire Advisory Board. “We all went back, looked at things, weighed our options, and I think we’re all here tonight to decipher whether or not we can extend the current contract for a year.”

The catalyst for the disagreement was language in the city’s proposed contract that essentially would have turned the other municipalities into fee-paying fire service customers. For decades, the department has operated as a financial partnership among the municipalities with each municipality responsible for a percentage of the department’s funding based on property valuation. Under the current contract, any purchase of more than $50,000 must be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Fire Advisory Board.

“This has worked since 1950. It’s worked well, I thought, for capital purchases and operation,” said Erin Prairie Town Chair John Van Dyk. “Why all of a sudden do we have this major shift? There’s our problem.”

Horne questioned whether the arrangement is working well based on the fact that the fire department’s ladder truck failed its last inspection and can’t be used. The situation has created urgency for each of the municipalities to make a significant funding commitment that stretches beyond what its officials are comfortable spending or borrowing. Under the contract the city proposed in September, a new ladder truck could be purchased after a City Council vote and the costs could be passed down to the customer municipalities.

Richmond Town Chair Gary Knutson also questioned why the city had to hold all its meetings about the fire contract behind closed doors.

“You’ve been in closed session four times, and I have a problem with the transparency of this whole thing,” Knutson said.

Horne explained the city’s position to Knutson.

“It’s a negotiation of a contract,” Horne said. “Obviously if we negotiate the differing viewpoints of the council members in an open session, then the towns know what the city is willing to do and what the city is not willing to do. If you’re buying property do you discuss what you’re willing to pay with the owner of the land, or do you do that more quietly? It’s essentially the same thing with this.”

On Oct. 21, the city appeared to back down from its stance at the September Fire Advisory Board meeting, and Horne said there didn’t appear to be any opposition to a one-year contract extension. Hearing a consensus among others present, Horne attempted to steer the conversation past the fire contract and onto the next item on the meeting’s agenda, which was addressing the department’s need for a ladder truck.

“We need a piece of equipment, and the chief found a used piece of equipment. We have a narrow timeframe to speak for this truck,” Horne said. “I’d like to, if we can, move onto the fire truck discussion.”

Knutson voiced his displeasure with the discussion moving forward without a long-term contract in place.

“You’re skirting the whole issue,” Knutson said. “We’re here to discuss the contract and you’re pushing us off to brainwash us into discussing the ladder truck.”

After a few more minutes of prodding questions and accusatory statements by multiple attendees, Fire Chief Jim Vander Wyst delivered his presentation about a used ladder truck from the Allingtown Fire Department in West Haven, Conn. The city had sent a fire department representative to Connecticut to examine the vehicle, and early reports indicated that the 10-year-old truck was in terrific shape.

Vander Wyst’s presentation soon unraveled into more discussion about whether a ladder truck is truly needed by all the municipalities or just the city. City Administrator Mike Darrow noted that without a ladder truck in service, the department’s Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating could be downgraded, causing area residents to pay higher insurance rates for their homes.

“You’re blowing smoke here,” said Richmond Town Supervisor Richard Berquist.

Berquist said the lack of a ladder truck at the department would be unlikely to affect the insurance rates of any homeowners and very few businesses.

“Let’s not tie a lot of stuff on ISO,” Berquist said. “Whether we get a ladder truck today or tomorrow, we’re not going to change an ISO rating. You know how long it takes for ISO to come out here and change this?”

City Alderwoman Jane Hansen told Berquist she took offense to his “blowing smoke” remark, and Berquist clarified what he meant by it.

“I’m sorry. I don’t want to get into a peeing contest. I want this to work,” Berquist said. “I just can’t stand when somebody starts talking about something they don’t know anything about.”

At its Oct. 27 meeting, the City Council discussed the potential purchase of a used ladder truck during closed session. The council voted to continue negotiating with the seller of the used ladder truck up to a dollar figure discussed in closed session. The final negotiation is contingent upon the neighboring municipalities all approving purchase and arranging their own funding sources.

The ladder truck purchase will also be discussed by the other municipal boards before the next Fire Advisory Board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 4.

Micheal Foley
Micheal Foley worked at RiverTown Multimedia from July 2013 to June 2015 as editor at the New Richmond News. 
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