A plan to swap a much-used fire engine on St. Paul's East Side for an ambulance has drawn pushback from local leaders and residents who say the neighborhood needs more resources.
Council Member Jane Prince, who represents part of the East Side, gathered a group of about two dozen elected officials and residents at Fire Station 7 on Monday to sound the alarm about the cut — saying it's the latest example of the city neglecting the East Side.
"Frankly, we East Siders are sick and tired of the city raiding the East Side to make up for budget shortfalls and equipment shortages elsewhere," she told the crowd. "Let there be no mistake: This is an equity issue."
The nearly 90-year-old Station 7 is home to one of the city's busiest fire engines. Between April 2016 and March 2017, the districts it serves on the East Side had some of the greatest fire losses in the city, totaling about $3.5 million in damage, according to a study the St. Paul Fire Department commissioned last year.
The department has long struggled with response times. Its daily staffing level has stayed the same since 2009, and 911 calls — especially for medical service — have risen.
In an effort to provide an ambulance to every station in the city, the Fire Department is planning to shuffle some equipment between stations. Station 7 is one of two in the city that doesn't have a medic unit — and the existing building wouldn't fit both — so its engine is headed to Station 20 at University Avenue and Vandalia Street.
"What we really need is a new firehouse," said Council Member Dan Bostrom, who also represents the East Side, adding that a new station was recently built in the W. 7th neighborhood. "It's probably our turn to get something done."
It's unclear whether a new station is a possibility. In a statement Monday evening, interim Fire Chief Butch Inks expressed support for the existing plan, saying it "meets the immediate needs of our residents."
A statement from Mayor Melvin Carter said he also approves of the plan.
Earlier in the day, Prince stressed that her concerns stem from decisions made during former Mayor Chris Coleman's administration and said she has confidence in Carter's vision for building an equitable city. She said she plans to meet with Inks and Deputy Mayor Jaime Tincher on Tuesday to discuss Station 7.
Many of the people who trekked through the wind and snow to Station 7 on Monday have deep roots in the East Side and vivid memories of how the fire station has affected their lives.
Kevin Tetu choked back tears as he recalled the firefighters who found his sister collapsed in the Station 7 driveway — after cutting her wrist on a glass door, she had walked there by herself — and saved her life. He remembered the day his father was killed in a hit-and-run, and firefighters from Station 7 came to clean up the scene.
"This engine unit has been a part of our family, in one sense or another," Tetu said.
Greg Blees, who retired from the city in 2004 after working as budget director for both the St. Paul mayor's office and the City Council, is a lifelong East Sider. While he said he understands citywide budget pressures, he sees persistent shortages on the East Side.
"They're taking resources away from where the need is, on the East Side, and putting it somewhere else with less need," he said.