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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Emergency services top city council agenda, again

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/15/23

TOWER— Emergency services topped the discussion during the city council meeting here on Monday as councilors took up a request for new equipment from the fire department and a plan to stem …

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Emergency services top city council agenda, again


TOWER— Emergency services topped the discussion during the city council meeting here on Monday as councilors took up a request for new equipment from the fire department and a plan to stem financial losses in the ambulance service.
Mayor Dave Setterberg outlined a new tentative proposal that could save the ambulance service about $27,000 a year in payroll costs, by reducing on-call pay during the nighttime hours, while increasing call time pay during those hours to at least time and a half. City staff, Setterberg, and Councilor Kevin Norby had examined the call patterns for the ambulance and found that the fewest calls came in the overnight hours, roughly from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., with only two calls per week on average during that time.
He noted that the overnight hours were the times that most ambulance staff were home and would be least inconvenienced by being on-call. He said that during the day or evenings, on-call personnel are restricted in what they can do to remain close enough to the hall to respond to calls. “The thought was during the daytime, they’re having to sacrifice, especially in the evenings if they have to stick around and not go to dinner with their family or to their kids’ games,” said Setterberg. “But we thought by 11 o’clock at night until five in the morning most everybody on the service is in bed sleeping at home and we aren’t necessarily inconveniencing them during those time periods.” He said the new proposal would push pay for when personnel are actually activated at night to $42 an hour for EMTs and $27 an hour for EMRs.
Setterberg said he presented the plan along with a frank discussion about the service’s financial picture to a recent meeting of ambulance personnel, with mixed reviews. He said he wants to go back and conduct separate interviews with ambulance staff before making any firm decisions on the question.
Setterberg acknowledged that the savings achieved by the proposal would come out of the wages paid to ambulance personnel, particularly those individuals who tend to work the overnight shifts, and he said he wants to talk to each of those individuals privately before adopting any changes. “We don’t want to step on toes,” he said.
At the same time, the ambulance service continues to lose money, due largely to the enormous jump in payroll costs associated with the 2018 decision to shift to paid on-call staffing with an unusually high wage rate. The service is also hampered financially by a $1.66 per mile charge assessed by the Ambulance Commission for every mile driven on a transfer. The service is also now tracking expenses, like depreciation, which it didn’t account for in the past, all of which has pushed the service’s operations well into the red.
In other emergency services business, the council tabled, pending more information, a request by the city’s fire department to approve the purchase of six new SCBAs to replace the department’s outdated units, at an estimated cost of about $36,000. Clerk-treasurer Michael Schultz said the firemen’s relief association has about $12,000 set aside to fund a down payment and that the association would agree to reimburse the city for ongoing payments for the equipment out of the proceeds from its charitable gambling operation.
Schultz noted, however, that the city would be on the hook for the equipment if the relief association were to disband. While there is no sign that’s likely to occur imminently, the fire department has suffered from a relative lack of personnel, currently around six members, with very little new recruitment in recent years.
While some on the council were amenable to the request, councilor Bob Anderson expressed reservations. “It seems kind of fast,” he said, “and without a lot of information.”
He said he’d like to see information about the grant opportunities that might be available to help finance the purchase of the units.
Councilors also expressed some frustration that the matter was only brought to their attention now, when the department’s SCBA units have expired. “If this is all of their tanks and they’re all expired, we should have been hearing about this a lot sooner,” said Norby.
“Yes,” responded Setterberg.
In the end, the council opted to establish a new ad hoc committee to explore options and bring a proposal back to the council. Schultz noted the urgency of such a decision, however, given the department’s current lack of usable SCBA.
In other business Monday, the council:
• Briefly discussed the bid for the proposed drinking water treatment plant, which came in nearly double the engineer’s estimate. For now, the project appears to be on hold but will likely be put out on bids again sometime in the future.
• Set a special meeting for 4:30 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 4, in the city hall council chambers to discuss the 2024 city budget.
• Heard from Schultz that the county has not yet responded to questions regarding the possible city purchase of the county garage which is currently being vacated.
• Heard an update on the city’s participation in a recent housing workshop, the second in a series with the Greater Minnesota Housing Partnership. The city was one of several communities selected to take part in a process to develop new housing, with technical help from the housing partnership. The city is currently focusing on a senior housing development on the vacant city lots on Main Street between the Timberjay office and The Car Wash. The council also discussed contracting with Maxfield Research to update the city’s housing study.
• Approved the 2024 police contract with Breitung at a total cost of approximately $82,000 including anticipated overtime. Councilors noted that the cost represents about a $1,200 increase over 2023’s contract.
• Authorized the city clerk and ambulance supervisor to participate in the Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital’s current regional study to explore solutions to the financial issues plaguing ambulance services around the region.
• Heard a report from Setterberg about the recent roundtable meeting with Sen. Grant Hauschild on how to address funding shortfalls for ambulance services. He noted that the state has since created a task force to explore the issue and develop solutions.
• Discussed but took no immediate action on possible improvements at the Hoodoo Point Campground.
• Appointed councilors Anderson and Norby to work with Breitung to discuss options for completing the “around the horn” trail. There is currently about a mile-long gap in the paved loop trail and Breitung chair Tim Tomsich recently reached out to the city about the possibility of completing the connection. Given private ownership and wetlands in the area, the segment poses a number of challenges, and a solution may be to widen the existing county road to add a bike path alongside. Councilors agreed that St. Louis County should be brought into the discussions about the trail.
• Approved on a trial basis to close city hall beginning at noon on Fridays to allow city staff to conduct their work without having the steady stream of interruptions at the clerk’s window.
• Tabled discussion on the possible sale of the airport courtesy car, a 2004 VW Passat, for further information on the condition of the vehicle. The city recently replaced batteries in the city’s GEM electric vehicle and has been making that available as the airport’s courtesy car.
• Heard a brief report that Habitat for Humanity is looking for a family to take ownership of the former Presbyterian rectory, which was recently donated to the organization for placement of a family.