WILLMAR -- People who call the fire department for service should pay for that service.
That's the rationale behind a suggestion by Willmar City Council member Rick Fagerlie for implementing an ordinance that would authorize the city to charge for emergency fire protection services. Revenue raised by the fee would be used to assist in paying the increasingly expensive cost of fire service equipment and vehicles.
In an interview, Fagerlie said he discussed the idea with Fire Chief Marv Calvin about six to seven months ago, and Fagerlie raised the idea when Mayor Les Heitke presented his 2010 budget proposal to the council on Sept. 14. Fagerlie asked Calvin to report back to the council on the number of cities that charge for fire protection services.
Fagerlie said he's interested in the fee, especially since council members heard that the fire department will need a replacement vehicle in a couple of years, that it would cost $600,000 to $700,000, "and we didn't know how we we're going to pay for it.''
The vehicle replacement was proposed in 2012, but the date is being delayed until 2013, he said.
Fagerlie said he's looking for additional revenue. He said the city receives roughly 20 cents out of every property tax dollar. He said the police protection budget is $3 million and the public works budget is $3 million.
"We don't even get enough to cover one of those budgets,'' he said. "We need additional revenue. Either do this or raise the property tax and no one wants that.''
Fagerlie said he's opposed to raising additional revenue from the franchise fee, which utilities such as CenterPoint Energy are charged for placing infrastructure in city right-of-way. (Right-of-way is a strip of land used for a transportation or utility facility). He said not everyone uses CenterPoint Energy.
Fagerlie believes that those who use the fire department service should pay for it. Those who don't, won't, he said.
The city of Spicer has been charging city residents $350 per hour and $225 for every half hour after that for a year and half, he said. Atwater has been charging for more than 14 years for those in the city limits and New London charges just the township for fire calls, he said.
Insurance could cover a portion or all of the cost of a fire call, Fagerlie said. Currently, every homeowner policy will pay $500 toward the cost of fire service, he said, but homeowners can buy a rider to increase the coverage.
He said he talked with some insurance agents who said they have seen more and more of this. "They're starting to look at it, too,'' Fagerlie said. "But you actually have to have a claim. They won't pay for a false alarm.''
He said insurance paid the $1,900 cost of a call to a condominium fire in Spicer earlier this year. Calvin said the cost of the call to a mobile home fire in Willmar last weekend cost $4,000.
The fee idea and a sample ordinance provided by the League of Minnesota Cities were discussed by the City Council's Finance Committee Monday afternoon. Willmar's fees were plugged into the ordinance for discussion purposes.
The hourly firefighter rate $14.30. Vehicle fees range from $75 per hour to $300 per hour for the first hour and from $50 to $400 for each additional hour, depending on the type of equipment.
While the fire department does not currently charge property owners for service, the department does charge for calls involving hazardous materials or fires in road ditches and in wildlife areas.
The department also serves Willmar and Dovre townships. If the department is called to a township fire, the statement of services provided goes to the homeowner and those dollars go back to the township, said Calvin. If the agency involved is the Burlington Northern Santa Fee Railroad, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or Minnesota Department of Transportation, the bill goes to the respective agency, he said.
Fagerlie acknowledges his suggestion did not receive much committee support. During discussion, City Administrator Michael Schmit said the fee would probably not be popular.
Council members Ron Christianson and Jim Dokken said they thought that most people think the property tax should pay for fire protection.
Committee members agreed the idea would be forwarded without recommendation to the full council for discuss Nov. 2.
Fagerlie says it was just the start of a discussion.
"We might not do anything this year, but it's not going to end. It's going to become reality in a few years, I'm sure, all over the state and country.''