An Orono City Council vote this week to form a fire department in the west metro city could mean a year of fighting for control of a fire station that until now has been operated by neighboring Long Lake.

Leaders in Orono, a city of about 8,000 on Lake Minnetonka, have been talking about breaking away from the Long Lake Fire Department for years, with the Orono mayor and some council members contending that Orono pays too much for Long Lake's service and could run its own department better. The fate of a fire station that Orono owns but Long Lake operates to respond to emergencies in Orono, Long Lake, Medina and Minnetonka Beach promises to be one of the biggest points of contention as the cities unravel two decades of shared fire services.

Orono leaders plan to take control of the fire station and start responding to emergencies in one section of the city by July 1, 2024.

"We own that station 100%," Orono Mayor Dennis Walsh said.

But in Long Lake, city leaders say the fire station is part of the shared-department contract, so their fire department will be using the station until the contract ends at the end of 2025.

"We are baffled and troubled by this effort," Long Lake Mayor Charlie Miner said. "I don't know if they plan on tearing the locks off the door, to forcibly take over a fire station."

Long Lake leaders have said they see Orono's moves as a hostile takeover of the fire department, and have threatened to sue for breach of contract. Miner said he expects a "response" from Long Lake in the coming weeks, once Orono formally notifies Long Lake of its intentions, or if Orono tries too aggressively to recruit Long Lake firefighters.

Monday's 3-1 vote, with Walsh, Council Members Richard F. Crosby II and Matthew Johnson for, Council Member Alisa Benson against and one council seat vacant, was made without any more public comment or debate. Walsh ended the meeting before the public comment period.

Orono estimates that an independent fire department will cost between $12 million and $17 million over the next decade, costing the average homeowner between $88 and $214 every year. The price for Orono will depend on whether Long Lake or any other neighboring cities decide to buy fire services from Orono. The annual expenditures of just over $1 million each year represent just under 10% of Orono's nearly $11 million budget.

Fire Chief James Van Eyll said the expenditures would cover new equipment and staffing for a weekday duty crew to man the fire station when many paid on-call firefighters are working full-time jobs elsewhere.

Walsh said he did not think the city would need to raise the tax rate to cover the budget increase, because he thinks the city's tax base is increasing faster than the city budget, mostly due to rising property values.

Hiring firefighters is another major question, as departments across the country struggle for staff. Orono wants to hire enough people to staff five 12-hour daytime shifts, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and have enough on-call firefighters to cover emergencies outside those hours.

"We are hoping to hire all firefighters currently serving Orono," Van Eyll wrote in an email. "They can serve on both departments if they want."

Members of the Long Lake Volunteer Fireman's Relief Association objected in a letter to Orono's City Council.

"It simply does not benefit our community to dismantle this operationally successful fire department and in turn create two superfluous departments with uncertain futures," the letter read.

Miner said Long Lake will take issue with recruitment of Long Lake firefighters to start working for Orono before the contract expires at the end of 2025.

Benson, the dissenting Orono council member, said Tuesday that she did not think the city had a clear plan to staff up. What plans had been presented, she said, seem to run afoul of the shared-services contract between Long Lake and Orono.

"It looks like a fait accompli that you're going to end up in a lawsuit," she said.