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City poised to up fire-call ante

Red Wing is proposing to double the fees two nearby townships, Wacouta and Diamond Bluff, pay for fire services.

The city's finance department told City Council Monday that increased fees would more accurately reflect Red Wing's true cost in providing fire services to the townships. City officials will propose the fee hikes to the townships in upcoming negotiations.

How the townships will react to the proposed fee hikes remains to be seen.

"It would be a devastating blow to our town," Diamond Bluff Town Board Chairman Jeff Holst said. He added, "It's a substantial part of our little town's budget."

Diamond Bluff's bill would jump from $20,000 this year to $41,000 in 2011, under the contract Red Wing has drafted. Holst said the town's total property tax levy last year was $45,000.

Fire services are also a large part of Wacouta's budget, Township Supervisor Susan Betcher said.

Wacouta's annual bill for fire services would jump from $26,000 to $51,000. Wacouta levied $135,000 for 2010.

Th finance department's memorandum says the higher fees are a result of increased operational costs, new staffing costs, rising health care costs and new equipment purchases. Plus, the contracts would now include administrative costs associated with fire services.

The memorandum said the fee hikes would ensure Red Wing residents don't pay more than their fair share.

City Council member Lisa Bayley expressed concern last week that the fee increases would be too steep for the townships.

"I understand we're trying to reflect our true costs, but we're also trying to help our neighbors," she said.

Finance Director Marshall Hallock said the contracts still must be negotiated, but he doesn't think the city should budge much.

"I don't think we're going to deviate too far from those costs, to be frank," he said during Monday's council meeting.

Bayley also asked, "Are we going to price ourselves out of the market?"

If the townships think the Red Wing's price is too high, they could look to other neighboring communities for fire services. Red Wing would then lose the fees the townships pay.

Wacouta could seek a contract with Lake City. Diamond Bluff could seek a contract with Ellsworth or Prescott or both.

There are downsides for the townships, however, if they were to contract with other municipalities.

For Wacouta, Lake City is almost twice as far away as Red Wing, Betcher noted. For Diamond Bluff, Holst said, residents appreciate that Red Wing has a full-time fire department. Ellsworth and Prescott have volunteer fire departments.

"We'll have to take a look at what's the best situation for Diamond Bluff," Holst said.

Betcher said she is asking residents what they think. She said the issue will come up at future town board meetings.