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Watson, Minn., council votes on fire dept. contract with Montevideo

WATSON -- Watson City Council members voted 3-2 Tuesday evening to contract with the city of Montevideo for fire protection.

With a packed house watching, many of them members of the Watson Community Fire Department, the tie-breaking vote fell to council member Tina Buseman.

Her vote came after council members rejected an offer by the attorney for the Watson Community Fire Department to negotiate a contract yet that evening.

Council member Mike Huntley, formerly the town's mayor, and current Mayor Joe Rongstad offered the motion to contract with Montevideo. Council members Steven Schoep and Marian Raffelson cast the no votes.

Watson firefighters were disappointed by the action, said attorney Ron Frauenshuh Jr., of Ortonville. He is representing the private department in a breach of contract lawsuit filed against the city.

"It's sad for the town that they condemn their own and hire Montevideo,'' said Frauenshuh when reached on Wednesday. "It doesn't make any sense.''

Mayor Rongstad said a number of concerns led him to support a contract with Montevideo in place of the privately organized Watson Community Fire Department. The mayor cited the need to have a contract assuring fire protection in place by June 15 - this Friday - and past failures to negotiate a contract with Watson Community Fire Department as important factors in his vote.

Financial concerns were also a factor, he said. Montevideo will assess Watson for fire protection under the same formula it uses for service to townships. A pro-rated contract for the remainder of 2012 will be $2,100, with a $500 per call fee.

The city of Watson previously contracted with the Watson Community Fire Department for roughly $11,000 a year, according to the mayor.

Watson firefighters argue that higher insurance premiums and legal costs associated with the dispute will eliminate any savings to taxpayers in the community.

The firefighters originally formed what is believed to the state's first privatized fire department in 1992. The city and the Upper Minnesota Valley Firefighters signed a 25-year contract. The city and what soon became the Watson Community Fire Department continued a relationship until this year, when a contract was not renewed.

The Watson firefighters will seek a legal remedy through the breach of contract lawsuit, according to their attorney.

He said the firefighters are also hopeful that voters will elect a new council in November that would renew a contract.

The Watson Community Fire Department will continue to operate and serve townships and would respond to any fire in Watson if called, said Frauenshuh.

Mayor Rongstad called the decision a difficult one. There were strong emotions displayed and even some name calling at the meeting, he said. The mayor said that he felt the decision was the one that had to be made in the best interest of the city.

If voters do not support it, he noted that four of the five City Council seats, his included, are on the ballot in November.

Montevideo is located six miles from Watson. City Council members in Montevideo last week approved a contract to provide the service, and emphasized they were doing so to assure continued fire protection for Watson.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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