Wanted for fire district: money and space
CAFD seeks funding balance and room to grow
February 2, 2024
While a statewide task force examines challenges facing emergency medical services in rural Minnesota, the Cloquet Area Fire District's status as a special taxing district - with its ability to levy taxes over a broad area - is being looked at as a model. But its reliance on property taxes and ambulance billing with the absence of local government aid affects necessities such as building maintenance and staffing.
CAFD officials are hoping the state legislature will come through with a more balanced funding solution for the fire district in the upcoming session in St. Paul, which starts Feb. 12.
Cities and municipalities can receive local government aid and other money from the state to support emergency services. While such funds can be given to the CAFD by cities, those local governments typically prefer to spend the money on their specific communities.
That is exactly what happened in October 2023 when the Cloquet City Council denied the fire district's request for $165,000 worth of one-time public safety money from the state, as previously reported by the Pine Knot News. Similarly, Scanlon offered to donate its funds to the district if there was a surplus after the purchase of a new weather alert siren, fire chief Jesse Buhs said, but no money was left over.
That meant the fire district - which provides fire protection to 170 square miles plus ambulance service to a state-mandated area of 275 square miles - received no public safety money from the state.
"So, we are looking at some options to allow for state funding to go right to these fire districts and ambulance districts," said State Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, representing Minnesota District 11.
In the meantime, the CAFD must rely on ambulance billing and property tax levies to fund its operations. Without local government aid, various budget items feel the pinch.
Though building maintenance for Station 1 (CAFD's main base of operations on Cloquet Avenue) represents 2 percent of the fire district's budget, the expenditure has increased dramatically over the years. Growing from only $30,000 in 2022, the main station's 2024 budget stands at $150,000, Buhs said, a 500-percent increase.
"Truly, building maintenance isn't a predominant part of our budget," Buhs told the Pine Knot. "It's just that we're identifying that we're spending more and more annually to try and maintain this facility,"
The district has deferred maintenance on some Station 1 needs in anticipation of a new building. However, the financial burden a costly new building ($14 million according to a 2018 preliminary estimate, Buhs told the Pine Knot) would place upon taxpayers without local government aid means the district will be facing some significant decisions in the coming years regarding facilities.
"If we can figure out a way to qualify or to change programs so that we do become qualified and we do see a significant change in our revenue sources, and we could move forward with the facilities project without this intense pressure or burden on our local taxpayers, that would move us forward," Buhs said.
CAFD staff get it.
"It's not a matter of luxury or having a new place to go to. We're hogtied with what you can ask people," said Capt. Justin Jahr, of the property tax increases that would come with a new building.
But the space of the current building presents storage challenges to the busy station.
"A third of our lives is spent here, if you do the math, and we're outgrowing the place," said firefighter/paramedic Jacey Wissbrod.
Jahr and Wissbrod were working out last month on cardio equipment that lines one wall in the garage: just one example of the solutions the station has to its limited space.
Oxygen tanks and weight room equipment line some hallways. Emergency vehicles - bought to fit the space rather than community needs, according to Buhs - are parked bumper-to-bumper in the garage, leaving close quarters in which to clean stretchers. EMS supplies, which the chief said would ideally be stored in a central location for efficiency and accountability, are instead stored in three separate locations throughout the building.
But the greatest safety concern is the increased risk of cancer. In addition to the workout space being in the garage - where truck exhaust fills the space with carcinogens - the spaces for changing out of and storing firefighting gear are right next to common areas. Without the negative pressure space found in modern fire stations to keep carcinogens from entering the rest of the building, the shedding of chemicals from the firefighters' gear poses a health risk.
The chief said eventually the deferred maintenance will catch up with them.
As an example, Buhs pointed out his office window to a retaining wall between the street and the driveway. The cracked and degrading bricks pose an eventual erosion risk, but Buhs said a repair estimate was over $100,000 due to the potential need to replace the sidewalk and pavement.
"It's a significant project and we've delayed that, not knowing what the future is of this building and [because] it's not an imminent concern," Buhs said. "We've been hesitant to put money into things that aren't directly related to the function and the safety and the ability to operate out of this building."
The CAFD call volume has increased over the years, with November seeing the highest numbers ever: 272 calls, 86 percent of which were medical. The ambulance service area to which the fire district responds stretches as far west as Perch Lake and as far north as Culver township in St. Louis County.
Buhs said staffing is a significant cost in the budget.
"We truly wouldn't be able to mitigate all of these different calls without the folks that we have," he said.
Dan Cyson, president of the Local 880 firefighter and paramedic union, said the impact of the increased call volume on workload is substantial.
Unlike many rural ambulance services, CAFD provides advanced life support, which requires substantially more training and equipment for its staff, who usually work both fire and ambulance.
"We work 24-hour shifts and we run all day during the entire 24-hour period," Cyson said. "We are busy. Our crews continue to work hard, and it's a struggle to find that balance between funding, staffing and demand for service."
The fire district has brought in less revenue from ambulance reimbursements due to an aging population moving away from higher paying private insurance toward Medicaid and Medicare, which offer lower reimbursements, as little as 40 percent of what is billed for a call.
"Even though our run volume may be increasing, our revenues are holding flat or, in some cases, look to be decreasing," Buhs said. "So, the additional costs of everything [are borne] on the backs of our local taxpayers. Included in all of those expenses are wages and salaries for our full-time staff."
A preliminary wage study conducted by Minnesota Professional Fire Fighters shows the CAFD has the lowest annual starting wage of 34 listed fire departments, at $54,205 - $14,108 below average. It is also nearly $10,000 below that of the Duluth fire department, which Cyson said gets the majority of CAFD's lost personnel.
The Duluth City Council approved an 8 percent market adjustment to wages for its fire department on Dec. 18. In contrast, Buhs said CAFD staff were given a 4 percent cost of living adjustment.
"I would say the process of getting a firefighter up and running and competently trained is incredibly expensive," Cyson said. "Right now what we're doing is unsustainable, because we're essentially spending Cloquet-area tax dollars to train people, buy them equipment, get them up and running and competent and fully trained, only for them to leave and go to a different department."
Buhs said competing with Duluth and other cities such as Hibbing and Virginia is complicated when local government aid enables them to offer higher wages and sign-on bonuses.
"So, at some point, we're going to collide with the reality of the marketplace and the reality of the cost of providing service, and we're going to have to increase those levies," the chief said. Otherwise, he added, the only alternative would be to reduce service.
Why a district?
Despite the current constraints on district finances, Buhs said having a special taxing district allows for a regional approach to fire and ambulance service, spreading the cost to all the communities in the area and reducing duplication of equipment.
"So, kicking out municipal boundaries and providing service from a regional viewpoint provides or creates an opportunity to have a much better service, much more coordinated and much more efficient," Buhs said.
In a Nov. 30 interview with Minnesota Public Radio, Aaron Brown of the blog "Minnesota Brown" said the city council of the Iron Range town of Nashwauk, which is considering selling its ambulance service due to its inability to break even, discussed the possibility of creating a special taxing district to pool rural resources.
"Chief Buhs told me about three or four other areas around the state that have all been contacting him about how it works," Rarick said.
The state senator plans on getting the legislators from those areas to sign on to a bill he's drafting regarding such state funding, to start the conversation. He said he plans to put draft language into a bill in the coming months.