Full council to decide on fire chief
After a lengthy discussion at Tuesday night's Baldwin City Council meeting regarding establishing the fire chief as a full-time position, the council made a decision - to table it until the next meeting.
Two weeks ago, the motion to establish the position passed on first reading 4-1 with the full council on hand. Tuesday's meeting, without Council Member Ken Wagner, was different.
The council was divided on the issue and Mayor Gary Walbridge was pushing for it. If it had ended in a 2-2 vote, Walbridge would have been the tie-breaking vote. That's the only time he can vote.
"Should we table it to have the full council here?" said Council Member Tony Brown. "To have our good friend Ken Wagner here? We need to think through it. We have been going toward a full-time fire fighter for some time. To make a lot of hay over $20,000 is penny wise.
"I think this is a watershed moment to be moving the fire department in a new direction," said Brown. "I think we need to step carefully."
The motion to table the item to the next meeting was unanimous, 4-0. The meeting was Tuesday instead of the usual Monday night because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Wagner was out of town.
The $20,000 Brown was referring to came from Council Member Ted Brecheisen Jr.'s biggest complaint with the position. The city had hired a full-time fire fighter in October for $40,000. He resigned in December because of problems with the chain of command, among others.
Although he was the only paid person on the volunteer department, he had to answer to both Fire Chief Allen Craig who has been chief for decades and City Administrator Jeff Dingman as a city employee. It didn't work.
The new position would bump that salary from $40,000 to $50,000 and possibly $60,000. That didn't set well with Brecheisen.
"I'm concerned that we're going to be spending another $50,000, $60,000 and what do we get?" said Brecheisen. "I respect the people in the fire department. They do a heck of a job. Maybe they need a chief, but what's he going to do for $60,000? After a few months, he won't have anything to do."
"If he runs out of something to do, we'll fire him," said Walbridge. "He or she should be challenged to improve the department. Why did this council pursue a full-time fire fighter and now you don't want one? So, you don't want a full-time position unless it's for $40,000?
"Until I personally have some knowledge of what this guy is going to do, I'd just like to take it under advisement before I vote on it," said Brecheisen.
That's what ultimately happened. But, it wasn't before lengthy discussion by all four members present and the mayor.
Brown started the conversation by referring to comments made by Council Member Doyle Jardon at the previous meeting. Jardon was the lone dissenting vote, stating that he thought the council wanted a full-time fire fighter to battle blazes between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday when there are fewer volunteer fire fighters in town. He also made the point that the fire chief directs the fire fighting efforts and doesn't actually go into the fires. Jardon is himself a volunteer fire fighter for a township department.
"I think we need to make the case for this in public," said Brown. "I know there has been discussion around town about the full-time position. I know Doyle was concerned about it at the last meeting. We have been talking about a full-time fire fighter for years. We need to make the case for that to be the fire chief."
City Administrator Jeff Dingman said the fire chief's duties would include being the liaison to the city such as present department heads, he would implement policy, recruit volunteers, do fire inspections and many other similar tasks.
"Recruiting volunteers has been difficult," Dingman said. "Streamlined communication and knowing that the person that is there isn't going to be a conflict in getting something done. Whether it's the fire fighter or the fire chief, we are a small city. I'd say all of our department heads are hands on. They have supervision roles, but also jump in on the work. One of the reasons for this is coverage from 8 to 5 Monday through Friday. That's one of the main reasons for this position."
That's when Brecheisen brought up the cost factor.
"I wonder at this time if we can afford this position," he said. "I think if we have a full-time fire chief he needs to be a resident of Baldwin City. I don't think we're laying out what we're getting for $50,000 to $60,000 in salary.
"We keep adding and we never seem to cut back," said Brecheisen. "I don't think we're growing fast enough. I just don't think we can afford another $50,000 or $60,000."
Dingman said the position does require a Baldwin City residency. He also said there have been staff reductions.
"We have reduced the director of utilities post," said Dingman. "We have another position in City Hall that we're not replacing. We are reducing positions."
There were other discussion items, too.
"We do look at this as a safety issue," said Brown, who heads the safety committee. "When we discussed it before there wasn't a lot of controversy about it. From a safety standpoint, the full-time position needed to be the chief. On the other hand, I appreciate Junior's argument. I think we all became concerned about a fire that occurred downtown and we had faulty equipment.
"At some point, we're going to have to make this jump, but is this the time?" Brecheisen said. "I don't know. I don't know the answer."
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