A group opposed to the Lino Lakes City Council’s decision to withdraw from the three-city Centennial Fire District wanted voters to have the final say. The group, led by paid-on-call firefighters, turned in a petition with 888 signatures at City Hall in an attempt to put the issue on the November ballot.
But, based on the city attorney’s recommendation, the City Council rejected the proposed ballot measure at its Aug. 11 meeting in front of a packed and, at times, angry audience.
City Attorney Joseph Langel said that, according to his research of state law and precedent-setting cases, ballot measures cannot undo executive actions already taken by the City Council — in this case a unanimous vote in January to withdraw from the joint fire district after a dispute with partner cities Circle Pines and Centerville about the power structure.
Frustrated opponents of the split said their attorney researched and approved their petition language. And on Monday, they filed a lawsuit challenging the city’s actions.
The group wants on the ballot a proposed ordinance requiring voter approval to withdraw from the fire department. Opponents of the split say it will cost all three cities more money and could jeopardize the quality of fire service.
Lino Lakes Mayor Jeff Reinert and other City Council members strongly disputed those claims, saying the city is setting up a joint public safety department for police and fire that will provide top-quality service. Lino Lakes will remain part of the Centennial Fire District until January 2016 to ensure no disruption in service.
“We do listen to you. We are moving forward,” Council Member Dave Roeser said at the Aug. 11 meeting, responding to a string of public comments opposing the decision. “As the mayor said, we have architects and all sorts of groups of people putting this together. We want you to be part of this. Help make this better.”
Last winter, Mayor Reinert initiated the split from the 28-year-old department once hailed as a model of cooperation because he said the power structure is skewed.
Lino Lakes pays 70 percent of the bill but has only one-third of the votes on the six-member steering committee.
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, Circle Pines $153,000 and Centerville $123,500. The department responded to about 1,000 calls last year, the majority to Lino Lakes.
Reinert insisted that each city be given veto power on all votes taken by the steering committee, which has two members from each city. Circle Pines and Centerville resisted, saying the current model worked.
The Lino Lakes city staff is projecting an additional $480,000 for start-up costs next year ahead of its 2016 breakoff, including funds for staff, recruitment and training.
Each city owns their own fire station but fire district assets, including engines and tankers, will be divided up in a draft-style event.