Monticello council learns more about possible move to full-time fire chief

Does Monticello need a full-time fire chief?

Council members and city staff recently discussed that staffing topic with two leaders from a neighboring department.

Albertville Fire Chief Eric Bullen and Albertville Assistant Fire Chief Tate Mills provided background into the hiring process Monday night during a special workshop.

Albertville Fire Chief Eric Bullen and Albertville Assistant Fire Chief Tate Mills provided background into the full-time fire chief hiring process Monday night during a special Monticello City Council workshop.(Photo by Tim Hennagir)
Albertville Fire Chief Eric Bullen and Albertville Assistant Fire Chief Tate Mills provided background into the full-time fire chief hiring process Monday night during a special Monticello City Council workshop. (Photo by Tim Hennagir)

“We are really looking forward to getting some input from you,” said City Administrator Jeff O’Neill, who added, “For years, we’ve dabbled with the idea of looking at bringing on a full-time fire chief. However, we just really haven’t pushed that hard. The time is coming to make a decision on when it’s time to pull the trigger on this idea.”

O’Neill said the council’s discussions were preliminary, but important.

“It’s not in the budget for 2017, but talking about it now, we can prepare the way perhaps for a late 2017 hire or 2018 hire,” he said.

Bullen said he was the first full-time fire chief in Wright County. Mills was the paid, on-call chief before him.

“He was taking ever other Friday off from his regular job to play catch-up,” Bullen said. He worked his butt off every other Friday.”

Mills said daytime weekday response to emergency calls was a huge problem for the Albertville department.

“Filling the boots was a challenge. We did get creative taking calls. We do have public works employees running our fire trucks, but they don’t go on the fires,” he said.

According to Mills, the level of service that’s expected from the public remains high.

“They expect you to be a full-time department, especially when the Wright County Sheriff’s Office is full-time and the ambulance services are full-time,” Mills said. “That level of expectation from the public was a big part of why we made the change. It was just too much for one person to do every other Friday.”

Mills said any discussion of Monticello’s hiring a full-time chief would have to have fire service membership support.

“If you don’t have that, and the support out in the community, people are going to ask questions,” Mills said. It’s not a quick process. You guys are doing the right thing about weighing all the options and talking about it early. This will be something that requires a budget. There’s a lot of demand for what’s required and what a chief actually does. Most of the time, the general public doesn’t realize that.”

Bullen said the Albertville Fire Department also covers part of Otsego. “Our budget is based on the taxable capacity of both cities,” he said. “Otsego is covered by three fire departments. Each fire department bills a different way. They are 44 percent of our budget. They are picking up part of my salary. Part of the reason they signed a service agreement with us in 2013 was that we had started discussions about hiring a full-time chief.”

Bullen is emergency manager for that city, and fire inspector. “We wanted buy-in from the fire department,” he said. “We relied on the state fire marshal’s office for assistance.”

During Monday night’s workshop discussion, Mills addressed generational differences that exist with younger people who are becoming firefighters.

“When I and my predecessors joined and the pager went off, you would be gone for a while. Now, the younger firefighters keep an eye on the time and on their phones,” he said. “We don’t have the dedication that we used to. It’s still a challenge, but it’s easier done if a city has a full-time person.”

City Councilmember Lloyd Hilgart asked about fire inspecting. O’Neill said the city of Monticello would have to define what sort of fire inspections would make the most sense for the city if its leaders hired a full-time fire chief.

“We’ll have to determine who we have on staff,” O’Neill said, Tate said since Albertville put an inspection program in place, the number of false alarms has been reduced quite a bit.

“It sounds minor, but it saves sending out a truck and it’s a savings in the long run.” he said.

The Monticello Fire Department handles about 300 calls a year. Albertville gets about 280 calls; that total includes about 60 percent medical.

“Our medical is only about 10 percent of calls,” said Fire Chief Daryl Gilles said. “We have CentraCare.”

Bullen said moving to a full-time fire chief enables a city to gain valuable points on its ISO fire protection rating, and that saves the taxpayers money.

Human Resources Manager Tracy Ergen asked Bullen if a full-time chief was a 40-hour a week position. “I have 40 hours in each Wednesday by noon,” Bullen replied.

Mayor Brian Stumpf is a retired firefighter, having served 24 years with the Monticello department.

Stumpf said he initially brought up the full-time fire chief idea to get discussion rolling.

“Knowing Daryl’s future plans, the timing would be just right so that we could transition into it,” Stumpf said.

During a budget workshop in August, Gilles told the Monticello City Council that he had purchased land in Utah, and planned on moving there, possibly in the next two years.

Bullen replied, “Our city council did take its time looking at it,” Bullen said. “It’s something you want to take your time with, because it’s a 2 1/2 year discussion.”

Councilmember Glen Posusta said he was leaned to the “no” side regarding the hiring of a full-time chief.

“I did a little bit of homework, and I did talk to a couple of our firefighters,” Posusta said, adding he called 12 different cities and inquired about  fire chief staffing status and population.

Buffalo does not have a chief with 16,000 people, Elk River does and has 24,000 people, Posusta reported.

St. Micheal doesn’t have a chief with 17,000 people, and neither does Waconia (12,000 population) Hutchinson (14,000 population), Rogers (12,000 population), Litchfield (7,000 population) and Waite Park (7,000 population), Posusta said.

“When I called Cambridge, I found out something interesting, and maybe this is a road that we should go down,” Posusta said. “They have a fire chief, but he doesn’t do the paperwork. They have a deputy fire chief who does that. In listening to you guys, filling out paperwork and applying for grants seems to be a big part of the job. This would be something to look into a little bit more.”

Bullen said he’s a city department head. “That’s helped me get a handle on personnel issues.” Bullen said he is currently paid $84,000 year.

Gilles is paid $6,000 a year and also is paid per call.

Bullen added, “I get a lot of comments from people who are glad to see the fire chief driving around. We haven’t had anybody show up at a city council meeting and say they didn’t like the decision to go to a full-time fire chief. We have a couple of pretty popular social media sites. If there would have been any opposition, it would have popped up there.”

Bullen said he was hired after a selection committee consisting of two council members from Albertville, one council member from Otsego, the Albertville and Otsego administrators, and State Fire Marshal Bruce West reviewed his job application and conducted interviews.

Contact Tim Hennagir at [email protected]