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Board rolls back budget, stiff tax increase

After a month of hearing from irate taxpayers in mostly Thomson Township, the Cloquet Area Fire District is right back where it started 12 months ago.

Following the CAFD Board vote Wednesday at the Scanlon Community Center, the property tax levy for 2022 will be exactly what it was a year ago: $3,143,425. Likewise, the ambulance district levy will be set at 0.019 percent of estimated market value (EMV), exactly what it was a year ago. The fire and rescue levy will be close to what it was a year ago, when it was 0.244 percent of EMV.

But the board went through a rollercoaster ride of changes over the past month to get there. Most importantly to taxpayers who live in the ambulance public service area, the board undid the shift in the tax levy that saw some township taxes going up more than threefold from 2021 to 2022. Additionally, since the start of the month, the board worked to whittle down a 2022 budget that included a 14.5-percent increase in expenses and a preliminary levy increase of 17.8 percent adopted by the board at its September meeting.

The end result? On Wednesday the board voted for a levy with a zero-percent increase and a budget that was only 4.02 percent higher than 2021, at $5,386,790. The increase will have zero effect on the tax levy because of an increase in revenues by the same amount for next year.

Acting fire chief Jesse Buhs said the changes came after lots of work and upon the advice of legal counsel, which suggested CAFD could not build up a reserve fund as planned in the earlier budget, which removed $307,000 from the budget. More importantly, the district couldn't change the way it allocated taxes between the fire and rescue levy and the ambulance levy without more data.

So the board returned to the same split as in previous years, with fire and rescue paying a far larger share of costs than ambulance-only taxpayers for taxes payable in 2022.

Board chair Linda Way vowed that the district would do better next year at communicating with fire district and ambulance members, collecting data to make more-precise calculations of cost, keeping up with legislative changes and starting work on the 2023 budget and levy sooner. They plan to utilize expert resources to better understand legislative mandates and the requirements of their own levy authority. But they want help, and they need members of the ambulance district to fill their board seats, including the long-vacant St. Louis County seat.

"It's not 'we and they'," she said, "it's all of us working together when we talk about patients. It's people in your township and ours, it's all of us."

Buhs and the board did not promise the change was a permanent rollback to the 0.019 percent of EMV that ambulance PSA members were accustomed to, however. The goal is still to make the financing of the fire/rescue and ambulance districts fair to all.

Buhs told the Pine Knot News the work done by Ehlers consultant Jeanne Vogt to recalculate the way the costs of ambulance and fire/rescue are distributed was "a good step toward discovering the true cost" of providing ambulance services. "There are specific costs [for fire/rescue vs ambulance] that we'll be able to break out moving forward, but we didn't have the volume of data to be certain," Buhs said. "We will have the precise data for 2022."

Buhs asked the board before it voted on next year's budget to reconsider cuts recommended by the finance committee after its Monday meeting and allow the district to hire three firefighter/EMTs in July at an estimated cost of $163,290. He also asked that the board add $34,809 to the overtime budget for Station 1 staff. Without it, he said, their ability to offer the same level of service while dealing with a substantial increase in call volume, Covid-19, overtime, long hospital diversions, accidents and more would be affected.

"It's a recipe for burnout and loss of staff, that would be difficult to replace," said Buhs, stepping into his new role as acting fire chief with confidence.

"Requests for emergency response don't change with staffing levels," he continued. "We are faced with known and projected staff shortages. As interim chief and someone with nearly 24 years of service in the district, I believe this is the right time to add staff."

Way - who stepped into the chairwoman role after Bob DeCaigny resigned early last week - apologized to the fire district staff before voting to add the three positions back into the budget.

"In an effort to make things more palatable and drive down expenses and the levy, I clouded my vision," she said. "I put a fire truck ahead of basic staffing needs of this department. The staff and the work they do come first."

CAFD board member Sheila Lamb also supported adding the positions back into the budget. "We have someone in place as chief that has gone above and beyond," she said. "We need to let him be chief and trust him."

The board voted 5-1 on both the budget and the levy, with Scanlon's Marshall Johnson the lone "no" vote. Johnson wanted to add payments for the fire truck into the 2022 budget, but the board elected to delay payments until 2023, because the truck won't be delivered for up to two years.

Way also thanked the handful of township residents in the audience for coming and learning about the district, and asked them to educate the board on their communities and needs. She hoped they could put the past behind them and learn from it, while preparing for the future together.

Thomson Township resident Jim Nynas thanked the board for listening to residents and the township board.