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Fire district requests city money

The Cloquet Area Fire District asked the city of Cloquet for a share of its public safety windfall from the state, and got a caring but firm “no” in response.

Councilors and Mayor Roger Maki voted 6-1 Tuesday to deny the request for $165,000 of the $556,397 in one-time public safety aid dollars allocated by the state legislature in its most recent session.

The vote wasn’t as bad as it seemed, Fire Chief Jesse Buhs said. He said the denial wasn’t bad for the fire district, at least long-term.

“It might be a little surprising that a ‘no’ answer would be beneficial, but if we don’t ask and have the question answered, then I can’t communicate with our legislators that there isn’t any public safety aid or LGA available to us,” Buhs said.

The money would have been used for a new vehicle exhaust system and station alerting system for Station 1. Buhs said the two items have been included in next year’s budget and will happen, but if the council had said “yes,” the district likely would have used the funds to pay down existing debt. The vote won’t affect the CAFD levy increases that were set last month at 2.83 percent for ambulance and 2.99 percent for fire.

City administrator Tim Peterson cautioned against sharing the public safety dollars for several reasons, including that the service area for CAFD extends far beyond Cloquet’s borders, police needs for the funding and investing in Station 1 when the district needs a new building.

Ward 1 councilor Bun Carlson was the sole dissenting vote.

“You talk about things you need: These guys are breathing the exhaust from all their vehicles,” Carlson said. “They want $165,000 so they don’t have to sleep in emissions. I don’t know why they would not be a candidate for that money.”

Legislative issue

CAFD provides fire protection to 170 square miles and advanced life support ambulance service to a state-mandated area of more than 250 square miles in Carlton County and southern St. Louis County. When the state legislature first authorized the formation of the CAFD in 2009, the fire district wasn’t allowed to tax residents in the ambulance district beyond a certain [very low] cap, which meant fire district residents supplemented the ambulance district. That changed after 2022, but Buhs said they don’t want to keep depending solely on property taxes and grants plus ambulance bills that garner only about half the payment requested.

Ward 4 councilor Kerry Kolodge quickly got to the crux of the issue.

“The problem with the district concept is you belong to everybody and you belong to nobody,” Kolodge said, referring to the fact that the fire district merged fire departments in Cloquet, Scanlon, Perch Lake and Brevator townships. Those communities now share staff, expensive equipment and other resources for fire and emergency calls. The area covered by ambulance is even larger, including much of Thomson Township and parts of St. Louis County. But CAFD is left out in the cold when the state sends funds to the cities it serves.

“I think structurally, the legislature has to fix this or this won’t be the last thing that drops through the cracks,” Kolodge said.

That is the long-term goal, Buhs said. They aim to work with the legislature to create state funding sources for CAFD and other future fire and ambulance districts in the state. Buhs explained the fire district and its board are trying to build additional revenue sources beyond property taxes and ambulance billing, something like the local government aid (LGA), which is taken from state tax dollars and currently sent only to cities.

The CAFD chief recently met with State Sen. Jason Rarick (Republican-Pine City) and communicates with State Rep. Jeff Dotseth (Republican-Kettle River) on a regular basis. He’s optimistic the two state legislators will advocate for a solution for the district.

“The answer [the council] gave me tonight is something I can use to move forward,” he said.

As part of the vote, councilors asked city administrator Tim Peterson to share support for the fire district finding additional sources of revenue through Dotseth and Rarick.

Rental licensing

During a work session prior to Tuesday’s formal meeting, councilors and city staff spent nearly an hour discussing potential rental housing licensing proposals, an issue because of ongoing safety and quality control concerns expressed by community members.

Community Development director Holly Hansen said current code — adopted in 2015 — is not doing the job, because it allows landlords to register rental properties on a voluntary basis and there are no regular inspections. Instead, the code is enforced only when a specific procedure for complaints is followed, and the rental owner is found in violation of the adopted standards. Hansen estimated Cloquet has an estimated 1,600 rentals on 400 parcels, although the exact number is uncertain.

Hansen said staff are not posting registrations to avoid giving the false impression that the properties have been inspected and are safe.

“Under all circumstances, we would highly recommend entirely ceasing the voluntary registry concept because it’s not producing any good information for our city in any way,” Hansen said.

Staff recommendations include adding a housing inspector position to do rental housing licensing inspections, to be paid for with fees if those are a goal of the council. Hansen shared a draft rental housing code based on the Grand Rapids, Minnesota code, which gives the city much greater control over rental properties.

“No one can register as a rental … unless your property taxes are paid, unless your assessments are current with the city. If you have any issues, you’re not going to be able to register as a rental,” she said. “I think that’s also an extremely important point.”

Staff also recommended other actions — which could be more quickly and easily accomplished — to help with managing homes and other buildings in the city, including a Vacant Building Registry, which would help the city track such buildings and implement fees and penalties the longer a building is vacant.

City administrator Tim Peterson suggested the council work on the other code actions and schedule some kind of meeting with landlords at a future date. The city hopes to get input from landlords, tenants and other residents as the council considers a direction.