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South metro fire board warms to taxing district

  • Article by: LAURIE BLAKE
  • Star Tribune
  • March 31, 2012 - 10:19 PM

West St. Paul and South St. Paul, which have merged their fire departments, are about to give their South Metro Fire Department its own taxing authority to pay for emergency medical services.

If approved in April, as appears likely, the taxing district would be in effect next year. The department could levy a combined maximum of $400,000 from residents of both towns that could be spent only for ambulance and emergency medical services.

The South Metro Fire Board -- a five-member body which includes two City Council members from each city -- favors giving the fire department taxing authority for the $400,000. (The fire department's total budget is about $4 million.)

The emergency medical tax would show up on residents' tax bills, and that "makes people more aware of how the money is being used," said South St. Paul City Council Member Dan Niederkorn, who serves on the fire board.

If in the future the Legislature allows cities to set up a taxing district for fire services as well as emergency medical service, the two cities would likely separate South Metro Fire funding entirely from their city budgets and make it responsible for its own revenue and debt, city officials said.

"I believe our board is hopeful that with rolling out an Emergency Medical Services district we can demonstrate that we are efficient and effective with the dollars,'' and that should lay the groundwork for an independent fire district as well, said Fire Chief John Ehret. Currently, there are only two fire districts in the state -- one in Moose Lake and one in Cloquet, Ehret said.

For now the $400,000 will be kept separate from spending for fire.

West St. Paul City Council Member Jim Englin, chairman of the fire board, said each city will reduce its municipal levy by the amount raised under the new taxing authority so that the $400,000 is not an additional tax.

"This is not a tax on top of a tax," Englin said.

The joint fire department was established in 2005 to serve the 11 square miles of both communities. It has 38 full-time employees.

The cities hired a consulting firm this winter to measure how well the combined department is working.

A key question was how fast its response times are for fire and medical emergencies, and how those times compare with the national standard.

"While we all believe we are meeting the needs and expectations of our parent cities, you really don't know unless you ask the question: Are we efficient and effective in our service delivery?" Ehret said.

"We are asking the question, are we on target? When there is a fire, what is considered a successful outcome? What should be our benchmark on sudden cardiac arrest?"

The results of the study are expected in May.

Laurie Blake • 952-746-3287

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