Lino Lakes is paying 70 percent of the bill for the three-city Centennial Fire District, but holds a minority stake in its management. That troubles Lino Lakes Mayor Jeff Reinert, especially as Lino Lakes continues to grow.
Now, after months of tense negotiations with partners Circle Pines and Centerville, the city is withdrawing from the 28-year-old department, once hailed as a model of cooperation. The separation process will take a year and a half to complete.
There's some disagreement about what's driving the breakup, and a petition drive has been launched to prevent it, but leaders from all three cities agree on one thing: It will cost more money, what with start-up costs for Lino Lakes' new department and with Circle Pines and Centerville incurring more operating costs.
"Everyone will pay more," said Circle Pines Mayor Dave Bartholomay. "The decision by Lino Lakes to withdraw continues to be a head-scratcher for me."
Some have called the move a power grab, which Reinert denies. He has said he worried about future expansion in the fire department and voiced concern that Lino Lakes might be pulled in directions it didn't want to go by its much smaller partners.
Reinert insisted that each city be given veto power on all votes taken by the department's steering committee, which has two members from each city. "It forces more discussion on the issue. It gives everyone a voice," he said.
But Circle Pines and Centerville have resisted, saying the current system has worked. Negotiations and a proposed compromise failed to settle things.
Division of costs
The three Anoka County cities divide the annual cost of the paid on-call department based on a formula that factors in calls for service, population and property market value. That worked when the cities were similar in size, but Lino Lakes now has grown to more than 20,000 residents, more than twice as many as the others combined.
This year, Lino Lakes is paying $593,000, Centerville $123,500 and Circle Pines $153,000. The department responded to about 1,000 calls last year, the majority to Lino Lakes.
When the breakup is complete in January 2016, Centerville could spend an additional $50,000 a year, Mayor Tom Wilharber predicted. "The budget will increase significantly, but we are looking to put money away for it right now," he said.
Bartholomay said Circle Pines' costs will go up, but he didn't have a specific number.
Lino Lakes city staff is projecting an additional $480,000 for start-up costs next year ahead of its 2016 break-off, including funds for staff, recruitment and training.
Bucking the trend
Lino Lakes appears to be going against the grain in an era when more cities are looking for ways to collaborate and consolidate. But Reinert said the city is trying a new kind of consolidation — combining the management of its police force and the newly forming fire department. The City Council unanimously voted in June to create the combined public safety department.
"Providing services in this manner is a growing trend that allows for more efficiency with the administrative end of operation. No need for duplicate positions in both departments," Reinert said in an e-mail.
Lino Lakes, Circle Pines and Centerville now have one station each and will keep them after the split.
Lino Lakes will build a second firehouse to cover the growing southern part of the city. That would have been necessary even had the city stayed in the Centennial Lakes department.
The separation process will include a draft-style event this summer to divide assets, including fire engines and tankers. In addition, the department's 60 paid on-call firefighters will have to decide whether to stay with a two-city Centennial operation, move to the Lino Lakes department or retire.
Residents form group
Some people are trying to keep it from coming to that.
A group of Centennial firefighters and residents has formed Concerned Citizens for Emergency Services. The goal is to stop the breakup either by persuading the Lino Lakes City Council to reconsider or to put the issue before city voters. The group's 60 members have distributed fliers and yard signs door-to-door.
They're also collecting signatures from Lino Lakes voters to try to put the question on the November ballot. They need 600 by the end of July, said Centennial Fire Capt. Mike Schweigert, who is part of the effort but lives in Circle Pines.
'It will be worse service'
"What we are looking to do is educate the people of Lino Lakes, Circle Pines and Centerville about the negative impacts of this breakup," Schweigert said. "It will cost millions of dollars and it will be worse service in the community."
Reinert said he believes the petitioners are a minority voice in the community. He also said that "we are not going to settle for less service than we already have." For his part in Circle Pines, Bartholomay is holding out hope that Lino Lakes will reconsider splitting off.
"I am hoping we can still pull it back together," he said. "The whole decision by Lino Lakes to withdraw was pretty rushed."