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Additional Willmar, Minn., firefighters authorized; utility vehicle donation on hold due to bid requirement

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- The Willmar City Council voted Monday night to authorize Fire Chief Marv Calvin to advertise and hire up to six firefighters.

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Calvin had requested the additional firefighters, saying the increase is necessary to continue safe and efficient service by the fire department.

The department currently has 31 firefighters but is authorized to have up to 35 on call. A total of 18 firefighters respond to a fire, but the preferred turnout number is 21. Calvin has said Willmar is relying on neighboring departments to provide resources under mutual aid agreements to get the full response of 21.

The authorization had been recommended by the council's Labor Relations Committee.

During discussion, council member Ron Christianson asked if the increase was necessary.

When Calvin was appointed chief in 2000, the approved number of Willmar firefighters was 45. That number dropped in 2009, however, with the mass exodus of about 14 firefighters due to retirements or deferred retirements.

After the firefighters left, Calvin said the council agreed on a staffing level of 35 firefighters. Calvin said adding six would bring the current staffing level to 37, but he said one or two new hires usually quit within the first year, which would bring the preferred level back to 35.

Before the council meeting started, Calvin told the Tribune that his department has been using mutual aid more aggressively since the 2009 exodus. Prior to 2009, mutual aid was used as the situation merited.

"Now we're pretty much calling them automatically,'' he said. As an example, Willmar called the Atwater and Raymond departments to assist with an apartment fire even before Willmar firefighters arrived on the scene to evaluate the situation. Both departments weren't needed, however, because the call involved a kitchen fire.

"But before 2009, we would have waited 'til we had an officer on the scene to evaluate,'' said Calvin. "When we had a number of firefighters that left, then we called for mutual aid.''

Calvin said neighboring departments do not object to being called. His department will continue to use mutual aid "to augment our forces until we feel comfortable we do have our people adequately trained and we have adequate responses,'' he said.

"It takes about a year to get our firefighters up and ready to go without limitations,'' he said. "That first year ... we'll still use mutual aid on a pretty regular basis, even if they approve up to six.''

In other business, the council was ready to vote on accepting the $38,150 donation from Willmar Area Faith at Work to buy two utility task vehicles for the fire department and ambulance service when City Attorney Rich Ronning surprised everyone by saying that the donation did not comply with the municipal bid law.

Ronning said the donation agreement from Faith at Work carried a contingency that the vehicles were to have been purchased from Motor Sports of Willmar. Ronning said Motor Sports did not have the low price quote.

Ronning said it was his understanding that there was another vendor, and that Motor Sports did not provide the low quote. Under state law, the city is required to obtain two bids or quotes if the amount is over $25,000.

"My understanding is there was another qualifying quote that was lower, and under statute I don't understand how you can possibly meet that condition,'' said Ronning.

If that condition remains in place, Ronning suggested the council reject the donation and ask Faith at Work to consider one of two solutions: either have Faith at Work buy and donate the vehicles, or Faith at Work could donate half the money to the city and other half to Rice Hospital, which operates the ambulance service. Either way, the city would not have to comply with the municipal bid law.

At the suggestion of City Clerk-Treasurer Kevin Halliday, council member Doug Reese then retracted the resolution he had made to accept the donation.

"It's a little awkward but I'll retract. We want to stay in compliance. I guess we'd have to discuss what the best way to do it is and come back to the city,'' said Reese. Christianson retracted his second.

Reese, who works for Faith at Work, said the issue will be addressed by the organization's board and he asked Ronning for assistance "so that I have exactly what it is what the options are.''

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