Northfield nears new agreement for rural fire service

  • Article by: LIALA HELAL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 24, 2013 - 3:45 PM

A contract that hasn’t been updated in 43 years is the subject of negotiations.

Discussions about fire service in Northfield and the rural communities it serves have gone on for years. Now leaders hope a new agreement is near.

The Northfield Fire Department since the 1950s has had an agreement with the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District to provide service to Dundas and six area townships — Bridgewater, Forest, Greenvale, Sciota, Waterford and Webster — under a contract that hasn’t been updated in 43 years.

For the past 14 years, the city and the Fire Protection District have had on-and-off negotiations about a new contract. And for the past year, a task force has studied options for long-term fire service, including new cost allocations and proposals for who has a say in fire operations.

“It’s a matter of voice and getting more consistent funding for equipment,” said Northfield Mayor Dana Graham.

Two sticking points have held up negations: Rural Fire is concerned with how the city buys fire trucks and wants the townships to have a say in when and how they are purchased; the city, meanwhile, is concerned that it “was providing more operating costs that weren’t necessarily compensated by Rural,” said Erica Zweifel, a Northfield City Council member who is also a member of the task force.

But a bigger question is what will happen if a key option is chosen — consolidating the governance of the Northfield Fire Department into a joint powers agreement, made up of Northfield, Dundas and the rural district.

Although Northfield would have the majority membership because it would be the largest entity in the joint powers, some city officials aren’t so sure about the change. Representation would consist of five members from Northfield, three from the rural district and one from Dundas.

“It would no longer be a city fire department, and that’s a big change,” Zweifel said. “The city of Northfield Fire Department would go away, and it would be something else. Our attorney has advised us: Be very sure about what you’re doing. Because we have the greatest population and would have the greatest impact should the JPA [joint powers agreement] fail.

“Right now, if something goes wrong, the bottom line is it’s in the hands of the council. … It’s giving up that governance to a different group,” she said.

A regional fire service with a joint partnership is a more modern means of operations, said Jerry Anderson, administrator for Northfield Rural Fire Protection District. A consultant hired by the three groups has explored options of a taxing district to fund operations. Another option would be keeping current contracts but adding a fire advisory board to the City Council.

“There is some strong interest to look at a taxing district,” Anderson said. The joint powers option would divide costs more evenly between Northfield and the townships.

The Northfield fire budget last year was $500,000, and Rural Fire in 2011 contributed $27,000 — about 5 percent. Under a joint powers agreement, Northfield would pay 74 percent, Rural would pay about 21 percent, and Dundas would pay about 5 percent.

“Rural costs would change substantially as I see it. It’s a big factor,” said Graham.

But Anderson says that’s not necessarily a disadvantage to the rural area. “When you have relationships, then you’re more willing to pay the cost,” Anderson said.

Currently, Northfield issues bonds to buy its fire trucks, while Rural Fire saves up and pays cash.

“One of the issues where it breaks down was the city purchasing fire equipment,” Zweifel explained. “We bought a new truck, but for many years, the city hadn’t prioritized that. And the rural group prioritized it.”

Now, with a new police station in Northfield leaving room to add on a fire hall — which will range from $2.5 million to $5 million in cost — who should pay for it has also been an issue.

“Communities like ours struggle when you’re providing two services — one in the city and one rural,” Zweifel said. “How do you provide the best service for everyone involved? How does the Rural have a voice in fire service? And right now, they don’t.”

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