Brainerd may cut costs by cutting its full-time firefighters.
City officials say they could save more than a quarter of a million dollars a year by replacing five full-time firefighters with paid volunteers.
"Who likes sending people out the door? I don't. But we are looking at the fiscal viability of the city," said City Administrator Jim Thoreen, who spent 10 years himself as a volunteer firefighter in Bemidji. City officials made their pitch to the Brainerd Fire Advisory Board on Wednesday.
Brainerd has wrestled with the rising costs of the fire department's payroll, equipment and benefits for years and has floated the idea of cutting its full-time firefighters before. In 2010, the council voted to eliminate the full-time firefighters, only to drop the plan a few weeks later.
Back then, candidate Mark Dayton blasted the idea, and Gov. Dayton didn't like the sound of it any better this week.
"The Brainerd City Council considered this action a few years ago and wisely rejected it," the governor said in a statement. "It would seriously jeopardize the safety of Brainerd's residents and visitors."
Brainerd officials bristle at that suggestion. Thirty-eight paid-on-call firefighters, who earn a stipend every time they respond to an emergency, already form the backbone of Brainerd's firefighting force. Five more full-time firefighters man the firehouse around the clock, drive the trucks and operate the equipment.
Under the new plan, those five full-timers would be replaced by an even larger force of paid-on-call part timers. The only full-time staff remaining would be the fire chief, a new deputy chief and an administrative assistant.
"This is a tough decision," said Brainerd City Council President Gary Scheeler. But if things stay as they are, he said, the city can't replace decades-old firefighting equipment or keep costs low enough for neighboring communities who contract with Brainerd for emergency services.
Brainerd looked to cities like Fergus Falls and Elk River that rely on on-call firefighters and concluded that their city could safely do the same.
"I understand how hard it's going to be" for those who would lose their jobs, Scheeler said. "We're going to do everything we can to help."
Firefighters warn that cuts could slow response times if on-call firefighters have to double back to pick up equipment. City officials say response times will remain the same, since full-timers often have to wait at the scene until enough paid-on-call firefighters arrived to help.
Restructuring to an all-on-call service would save the city $265,000 in its first year, even when the city factored in the cost of unemployment payouts to the firefighters. Scheeler said the savings would only increase in following years.
The City Council will take up the debate on Monday.