Several members from the Cherokee Fire Department attended the regular city council meeting, held Tuesday evening, to witness the fate of their department in light of threatened changes and cuts in the 2006-07 fiscal budget.
During the public forum portion of the meeting, citizen Leo Klotz questioned council members about where funding for the fire department came from and whether or not they had considered what would happen if all the volunteers in the department resigned.
City council members also invited George Oster, a consultant for fire departments across the state, to share his observations about fire departments and city budgets. He was also invited to share his recommendations. He did not make specific observations about the Cherokee Fire Department but was confident that in his experience his observations would apply.
Oster pointed out the importance for cities to have a goal for their fire departments and that the number one goal should be to provide the best possible services within the context of the community. He also noted that Cherokee is not alone in their battle to obtain funding and new volunteers, the two main necessary resources for any fire department. It is a difficult plight all across the state, he said.
Responsibilities for volunteers are much more complicated than what they used to be and it takes an enormous amount of training and time to be a volunteer. He added that it won't be too long before the training requirements become mandatory for all volunteer firemen.
Oster said with the state putting severe requirements on small communities, the problem of staffing and leadership in a fire department becomes a burden for those communities. He also added that relationships with township trustees needs to exist because rural residents in townships generally make up half of a community and it's volunteers.
Oster then made seven key points and recommendations. His first point was that it was important to praise all the volunteers within emergency services because they are the best experts on what emergency services looks like and what it should look like. Oster recommended that a specific program to recruit more volunteers, recognize volunteers, and support those volunteers be established.
The second point Oster made was that leadership is the key. Without good leaders there won't be good organization within the department. Leaders are defined not only in the fire chief but within specific areas of the department.
He added that one of the many questions of communities is, "What size should a community be before you have a paid fire chief?" Oster said that a paid fire chief depended, not on the size of the community, but more on the complexity of the community and that at some point in time a community will need a full-time fire chief.
He added that when looking around at other communities with smaller demographics, the average age of volunteer firemen is 50 years and older. Eventually these communities will have fewer personnel to rely on and will look to the larger (magnet) towns for services.
Oster recommended to begin evaluating the need to hire a full-time fire chief to lead and manage the department.
Oster's third point was that cities need to do a better job of partnering with township trustees. In his experience there isn't much of relationship. He said that many times trustees will fight tooth and nail to prevent an increase in taxes but at the same time they are willing to pay their fair share for services provided.
Oster recommended that the city and the fire department begin to view the fire department more as a Fire Protection District and involving township trustees in the process. Cities also need to evaluate cost sharing of townships within the Fire Protection District. There is a formula available to aid in evaluating such costs.
As part of the contract with townships, Oster also recommended that an advisory committee, consisting of representatives from the townships and council be established form a legal working partnership.
He also added that there are many other avenues for resources. Right now tax exempt facilities are not contributing to services they have access to where the fire department is concerned. The Iowa legislature has not accounted for the burden put on communities to provide these services to these facilities without any additional resources provided to the cities. He cited the Mental Health Institute, colleges, and churches as examples.
Oster recommended developing partnerships with these entities along with other government agencies and businesses to develop additional financial resources for the department.
The development of the Cherokee Fire Department Foundation was an important step, Oster said, toward developing another resource for the department. He added that if it is not currently set as a non-profit organization it should be soon. This will allow the department to secure additional funds from private and non-profit organizations that would be tax deductible to them.
Fees are going to be the future for fire departments in Iowa in the future. Although no one likes the idea of fees they must think of it as an additional resource. Oster used the example of the water department. The city provides the means of getting the water and charges the citizens who use it a fee to get it. Some people pay more or less depending on how much they use it.
The fire department charging a fee to put out a fire is no different. The city pays for the means but those who use it will pay a fee to use it. Although a fee schedule for the fire department is a political decision, Oster recommended that it be taken under serious consideration.
Oster's final observation was that communications between fire departments and city councils could be improved. He recommended that the community establish a Public Safety Committee, which would coordinate the fire department, city council and administrator.
Dave Schipper, State Fire Marshall, who was also in attendance at the city council meeting, said that the Public Safety Committee would also set policy that dictates how volunteers are recruited, minimum requirements, and limitations (background checks).
Schipper also added that Cherokee is very fortunate to have a paid volunteer fire department because compared to all-volunteer fire departments the response time for leaving the fire house in one minute at Cherokee compared to others at maybe thirteen minutes because they are all volunteer, makes a huge difference in the amount of property damage, potential life loss, and determining the cause of the fire.
Council members then moved on to reviewing the budget and setting a date for the public hearing. Cherokee City Council members finalized the 2006-07 budget without making changes to the Cherokee Fire Department. It was decided with $5,500 worth of cuts from the general fund and the implementation of the franchise fee with Alliant Energy it became unnecessary to change the fire department budget.
In other action, Council members tabled decisions on pay increases for non-union employees until fact finding is complete for the union employees.
The union contract is under fire because of the cost of insurance benefits. Under the current union contract the 31 city employees and their families have 100-percent health coverage with no cost sharing to the employee. The cost is roughly $13,000 per employee.
Council members approved the changes to the budget in a roll call vote of 3 to 1 with Dwight Varce being the only no vote. A public hearing for the 2006-07 budget is set for March 14 at 7 p.m. at City Hall in Cherokee.
Former City Council member Doug Woods has agreed to fill the vacant Ward 1 seat of Bill Troth, who died in early February. Council members motioned and passed the approval of Woods to fill the seat. Councilman Ron Johnson was appointed as Mayor Pro-tem, a position Troth also held.
The Council also approved the closing of West Main Street from 2nd Street to 4th Street for a street dance on Friday, July 1 sponsored by the Sesquicentennial Committeeas part of the city's four-day 150th Birthday Celebration. They also approved the purchase of a used chipper from the county for $7,500 to come from the current year's budget.
Councilman Varce made a motion to increase fees for facilities at Koser Spring Lake Park by $5. Duane Mummert, Park Director, asked that the council not increase the fees for fear of driving people away rather than bringing people in. With current fees there is an increase use of the facilities which generates more income. Linda Peterson, Community Center Director, added that if the use of those facilities continues at current rates they will increase income over the prior year without any problem. The motion died for lack of second. Current fees will remain the same.