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Cloquet Area Fire District Board receives proposal on service costs

The recommendation comes after the district hired a financial consultant to examine the breakdown of costs between its fire and ambulance services.

Cloquet Area Fire District headquarters
Cloquet Area Fire District Headquarters.
Jamey Malcomb / 2020 file / Pine Journal
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CLOQUET — The Cloquet Area Fire District's financial consultant presented a recommendation for a possible way to breakdown the costs of fire and ambulance services in the district during a special meeting Wednesday, June 29.

Bruce Moeller, a senior consultant at Fitch & Associates, recommended a breakdown of 40.3% of costs for fire services and 59.7% of costs for ambulance services.

The proposed split is different to the 80% costs of ambulance services that was proposed by the board last year, and caused residents in ambulance-only districts to have concern s.

The board made a motion to acknowledge the report, which cost $29,000, but officials didn't vote on the measure. They voted to defer a vote on the recommendations to the board's July 20 meeting.

Should the board move forward with the recommendation, Moeller showed how it would affect taxpayers whose home is valued at $200,000 compared to the current amount and to the amount proposed in December.

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For an ambulance-only property, the cost now is $45; the new proposal would be $124, an increase of $79.

The amount is lower than the $186 option proposed last year, and is also just the first step of an increase. Moeller said with his breakdown there would not be another increase.

Fire services, on the other hand, would decrease by $116, from $392 to $276.

The district did not have an idea of how the new split would affect more expensive houses, but Fire Chief Jesse Buhs said officials will plan to work on an answer for the next board meeting.

Moeller calculated the proposed breakdown by examining the number of calls received, the time staff spent on calls and the costs shared between the two services.

According to Moeller's presentation using an average over three years, the ambulance service had over 2,000 calls a year lasting on average 1.5 hours, where the fire service had 50 calls lasting on average 50 minutes.

While the ambulance service had significantly more calls, Moeller said because district staff are firefighters and paramedics the time they wait for a call is split down the middle.

According to his presentation, per year, district staff spends 4% of its time on fire calls and 14% of its time on ambulance calls, leaving 82% of the time waiting for a call.

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Moeller said it is normal for the district to have more time waiting for calls officials take care of things like training and paperwork filing during those times.

From a budget standpoint, Moeller said 5.65% of the district's $5.4 million budget was clearly identified as ambulance or fire service costs. An additional 13% represents the equal split for time when staff are not actively on a call.

Not everything can be broken down "by the penny" into both services, Moeller said, as the cost and labor necessary to account for it is so intensive that it exceed the benefit.

Board Chair Linda Way said the new proposal gives the district a good foundation to work with the budget.

"The work that has been done is extremely valuable to us," she said. "(They've) done an excellent job at breaking things out."

Way said this process was done in part for the district to be more transparent and follow through with the board's commitment to improved communication.

Buhs said the presentation was everything the district hoped for. Furthermore, the figures given by Moeller are backed up by data and are defensible as the district moves forward with a split budget perspective.

Way said the work will not end here, but the board will continue to work on all aspects of the budget and services to the citizens.

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"We are committed to being good stewards and assuring Cloquet Area Fire District is available into the future to serve the needs of our member communities," she said.

While the report was presented during the meeting to the full board and public in attendance, the board voted to wait to release the report until its July meeting.

MORE FROM DYLAN SHERMAN:
Zach Stirewalt had to look for a new apartment after two floors in Cloquet's Victory Apartments building were deemed unfit for habitation. Facing a critical shortage of housing, county officials say they are working with developers and scouting areas to build new housing.

Dylan covers the local governments of Cloquet and Carlton County, as well as the Esko and Wrenshall school boards for the Cloquet Pine Journal.
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As reported by Carlton County District Court.