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Official says Willmar safe despite firefighter retirements

Firefighters with the Willmar Fire Department extinguish a car fire around 3:30 p.m. Jan. 14 in Willmar. Fourteen firefighters with the Willmar Fire Department have submitted letters of resignation to receive full payments from their retirement fund before the fund runs out of money. Tribune file photo

WILLMAR -- Willmar residents and their property were assured Monday night that they'll have adequate fire protection even though 14 of the 42 paid on-call firefighters in the Willmar Fire Department resigned unexpectedly to receive pension benefits remaining in their diminishing investment portfolio.

The assurance came during the Willmar City Council meeting from City Administrator Michael Schmit who wanted to clear up what he said were rumors that were starting to fly around town "about something crazy'' going on at the fire department.

Schmit said he wanted to talk about the retirement situation.

He assured "the mayor and council and residents that the remaining 28 firefighters and chief are perfectly capable of doing the job, and the residents of Willmar will not see any diminishment in response times and our ability to do our job and fight fires and protect property and life.''

Schmit reported Fire Chief Marv Calvin said on average in 2008 that 22 firefighters out of 42 responded to each fire call with 10 firefighters getting on a fire truck and responding to the scene.

"I think we are adequately staffed to continue to provide the excellent service that the community has become accustomed to,'' Schmit said.

He said the Fire Department Relief Association looks at its investment portfolio annually and determines what amount can be distributed to members based on years of service. Firefighters receive an amount for each year of service at the time they retire. He said the association's portfolio has grown to a healthy sum.

Last year, the association set the payout at $3,700 for every year of service. Firefighters become fully vested in that amount after 20 years.

Schmit said cities with similar operations will generally ratify that same amount or a portion. He said Willmar has ratified (or guaranteed) $2,400.

As in any aspect of the economy, the value of the association's portfolio has dwindled considerably to a point where some firefighters are choosing to retire to protect their investment, Schmit said.

"We didn't expect to get the kind of response from the firefighters that we did,'' Schmit said.

He said Calvin verified 14 have indicated they will exercise their option to retire and seek a payout.

Schmit said a $3,700 payout will deplete the investment fund "and put everybody else in a little bit of a difficult position. But over time we would hope it would be built back up and that firefighters can then enjoy the same benefits'' in the future.

Schmit said he's relying on the association, the firefighters, administration and the State Auditor's Office to determine if $3,700 is the appropriate amount or should be something less.

Schmit suggested a city hiring freeze be relaxed to allow a solicitation for a handful of replacement firefighters, saying that training a smaller number would be easier than a larger number.

Mayor Les Heitke said he felt more comfortable that Willmar was adequately protected because the department has mutual aid agreements with fire departments in other cities to provide assistance. Willmar sometimes assists other departments, he said.