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Mayor says 14 firefighters were not layed off by the city

WILLMAR -- Mayor Les Heitke thinks he was misquoted when he spoke at a Capitol news conference last Friday about the effect of local government aid cuts on cities and the retirement of 14 Willmar firefighters.

In a Tribune interview Tuesday afternoon, Heitke said he told reporters that 14 of Willmar's 45 firefighters resigned to take advantage of a payout from their pension fund, but he said the reporters interpreted his statement as a cut.

Heitke said the city did not cut any firefighters. He said the firefighters voluntarily resigned.

Heitke was also quoted as saying the city cannot afford to hire a full-time manager at the new airport.

Heitke said the city is not planning to replace the manager and he said he thought that that situation was not the best thing for a new, fairly active airport.

According to City Administrator Michael Schmit, the city hired a full-time manager when the airport opened in September 2006. When the manager resigned last year, the city reassessed the need for a full-time manager and decided to delegate the manager's duties on a part-time basis to the assistant city engineer.

When Willmar's local government aid was reduced last year, and with LGA cuts possible this year, the city imposed a hiring freeze, according to Schmit.

The freeze does not apply to the fire department, however. He said the city will be filling 5 or 6 of the open firefighter positions. The city advertised and received 23 applications. He said the city is in the process of testing and interviewing applicants. He said the plan is to select 5 or 6 new firefighters, implement training immediately and have them on board and ready to respond to calls on or about May 1.

"We can only train so many firefighters at one time. That accounts for the reason behind the 5 or 6,'' he said.

Also, the city is studying whether all 14 positions need to be filled, he said.

"We don't know where the number of 45 has come from. It evolved over a long period of time. We're going to look at the organization and determine later this year if we need to hire more than the 5 or 6 that we hire this spring,'' he said.