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Watson, Minn., fire department issue is beginning to heat up

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

WATSON -- Montevideo is willing to provide fire protection to the city of Watson, which has not renewed a contract with the privately organized Watson Community Firefighters.

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Montevideo City Council members approved a proposed contract on Monday to extend the protection, primarily to assure that the community is not without fire protection, according to City Manager Steve Jones.

Yet the dispute over the decision by the city of Watson to look elsewhere for fire protection has only heated up.

The Watson Community Firefighters has served a lawsuit charging the city with breach of contract. It also plans to file a complaint alleging an Open Meeting Law violation by the Watson City Council, according to the attorney representing the firefighters, Ron Frauenshuh Jr. of Ortonville.

How this latest controversy in the Chippewa County community of 205 people plays out could be known Tuesday. That's when the Watson City Council will take up the issue of whether or not to approve the contract with Montevideo.

The city is currently receiving fire protection from the Milan Volunteer Fire Department under a three-month contract that expires June 15.

Watson Mayor Joe Rongstad said Tuesday that he is not sure what the council will decide. He cast the tie-breaking vote when the council decided to pursue a possible contract with Montevideo.

A lot of issues have come up since that motion was approved, Rongstad said, adding that there is much to discuss at the upcoming meeting.

The controversy began last month, when the city and Fire Department did not negotiate a new contract. The Fire Department is one of possibly only seven in the state that are privatized, according to Frauenshuh.

The firefighters originally organized in 1992 as the Upper Minnesota Valley Firefighters, and subsequently as the Watson Community Firefighters. A 25-year contract was signed between the city and Minnesota Valley Firefighters at that time.

The city contends that it is no longer bound by the contract, based on an opinion from its attorney. There is no record with the Minnesota Secretary of State that the Minnesota Valley Firefighters had incorporated. Also, the attorney advised that action by the Watson Community Firefighters to approve one-year agreements in recent years has "served to supplant and replace the original 25-year contract.''

Frauenshuh said that is a matter for a judge to decide, and that the city cannot arbitrarily ignore its long-term contract. "The last time I checked, a lawyer's opinion does not void the contract,'' he said.

He said the annual renewals were merely standard form contracts put out by the state firemen's association.

The proposed contract with Montevideo would charge Watson for fire service in the same manner that Montevideo assesses townships for the service. The annual fee is set at $2,000 for 2012. Property owners would be charged $500 per fire call.

The $2,000 fee looks like as much as a $9,000 savings to the city of Watson when compared to contracts with the Watson Community Firefighters. But Frauenshuh said the difference is misleading. He said homeowners in the city are likely to pay more for fire insurance -- perhaps $100 more per household per year -- if fire service is contracted from a department six miles away.

And, he said the legal costs associated with the dispute will in themselves equal if not exceed any projected savings.

Frauenshuh said the Watson Community Firefighters will continue to provide fire service to townships, but absent a city contract are in a difficult financial position. The private fire department leases the Fire Hall from the city. It has maintenance, workers compensation and pension costs that were previously funded in large part by the city's annual fee for protection.

The firefighters want to resolve the matter, but are clearly upset by the city's actions, Frauenshuh said.

He said the city publicly announced it was not going to negotiate an agreement when it learned that the chief had a criminal sexual conduct conviction. The city had not informed the fire department of this situation. The chief resigned when firefighters learned of it through recent news reports, he said.

He said the City Council had scheduled a meeting to discuss the hiring of election judges when it took up the matter of fire protection, and he alleges it did not give proper notice under Open Meeting Law requirements.

Nonetheless, he said firefighters hope to resolve the issue and continue to provide service to the city. "We're just doing the best thing we can do. We'll work with them, negotiate and do what is right,'' said Frauenshuh.

Mayor Rongstad said that no matter what happens, the city of Watson will have fire protection.

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