CAFD tax to rise, building plans move ahead

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BREAKOUT: Levy to increase for 2018

Although the new fire building is not included in next year's Cloquet Area Fire District budget, property owners will still see an increase in the fire district portion of their taxes.

The proposed CAFD budget for fiscal year 2018 is $4.275 million versus $3.947 million in 2017.

That means a tax levy increase of 13.63 percent for CAFD members, and 12.66 percent for those who only pay for ambulance services.

It's not as bad as it sounds, Schroeder explained, because 8 percent of the levy increase will be assumed by the addition of Brevator Township. That means property owners in Cloquet, for example, should only see an increase of 5.63 percent in the fire district portion of their taxes, provided their valuation didn't increase.

Schroeder said the main reason for the budget increase is staffing. The district plans to hire three additional full-time firefighters, to help keep each full-time shift adequately staffed. The fire district currently has 27 full-time staff and 30 paid on-call staff.

The CAFD truth in taxation public hearing is set for 7 p.m. Dec. 14 at the Scanlon Community Center.

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If all goes as planned, the Cloquet Area Fire District will have a new home in Cloquet by the end of 2019, one that will consolidate multiple facilities into one site, yet still allow the growing fire and emergency service district to maintain a good response time.

Although multiple studies over the years have pointed to the need for updated fire district facilities, CAFD Chief Kevin Schroeder said two factors played into the decision to build next year:

1) the fact that CAFD and the Cloquet Police Department have outgrown their shared space on Cloquet Avenue, and the city would like to remodel or rebuild the facility for police only;

2) Jarden Brands offered to donate land for a new building near Sappi and the former match mill.

It's been a slow process since the initial land offer. In the three years since then, the Jarden company changed hands twice and Jarden's Cloquet plant is now closed. Still, Schroeder said, the end is in sight. Attorneys for both sides are nearly done finalizing the deal, and CAFD officials started meeting with the design team — LHB Duluth and Five Bugles Design, an architectural firm specializing in fire stations — in mid-September. They hope to have a plan in place with an estimated cost by the end of 2017, he said.

"We have a target range for costs — but it's going to be very expensive," Schroeder said. "The land donation should save us about $1 million though."

The ballpark figure for the building project included in the CAFD 10-year capital plan is $12 million, which would be funded through general obligation bonds, he explained. Station 1 in downtown Cloquet and Station 3 in Scanlon will both move to the new facility, along with the administrative offices now housed in Scanlon, plus an offsite storage facility.

"It will drastically increase our efficiencies, coordination of resources and shrink our footprint. And happily, the donated land is almost exactly halfway between the Cloquet and Scanlon stations," Schroeder said, adding that the district will own the facility rather than leasing as it does now.

The new building will be large and well built, of masonry, with an expected lifespan of more than 50 years.

Township fire stations in Perch Lake and two sites in Brevator — which will officially become part of the fire district Jan. 1 — will remain open but staffed only by paid on-call volunteers.

"Under the district concept, if something happens in Perch Lake, for example, they get resources from everywhere," Schroeder said.

CAFD currently provides fire and ambulance services to its member communities of Cloquet, Scanlon and Perch Lake, plus it provides structural fire protection to the Fond du Lac Reservation, for a total area of 170 square miles. CAFD also provides ambulance service to a state-mandated area of more than 250 square miles in Carlton County and southern St. Louis County. When Brevator Township comes on board, it will add roughly 36 square miles to the fire service areas; Brevator is already included in the ambulance service area.

It should mean quicker response times to the township. Cloquet is fully staffed 24/7, so they won't have to rely solely on volunteers. Cloquet is also closer to many Brevator Township homes than partner volunteer fire departments.

Fire departments across the region are struggling to attract and retain volunteers, Schroeder said.

"There are places in southern St. Louis County where if you dial 911 now, there's no guarantee a fire truck will show up," he said.

CAFD is also looking for more paid on-call staff. No experience is necessary; they provide all training.

"If you had told me even 10 years ago that finding staff — full- and part-time — would be one of our biggest challenges today, I wouldn't have believed you," Schroeder said.