Wyo. Fire Department faces staffing shortages within town limits

Mills officials voted to reduce the Mills Fire Department to administrative-only roles and would lay off nine full-time firefighters


Morgan Hughes
Casper Star Tribune, Wyo.

MILLS, Wyo. —The Mills Town Council is considering two different ways to maintain firefighting staff within Mills town limits. One option would be to staff Fire Station No. 9, the station currently occupied by the Mills Fire Department, with Natrona County Fire Protection District firefighters. The other option would be to contract with a private company to provide firefighters to Mills.

The council presented both options during its meeting Wednesday night.

(Photo/ Mills Fire Department)
(Photo/ Mills Fire Department)

That meeting ended with residents circulating a petition to recall Mayor Seth Coleman and one Mills resident, Leah Juarez, publicly calling for Coleman’s resignation.

Wednesday was the second consecutive town council meeting where residents were lined up into the hallway to speak on behalf of the fire department.

In April, Mills officials voted to reduce the Mills Fire Department to administrative-only roles effective July 1. That decision would lay off nine full-time firefighters and eliminate the department’s ability to respond to emergency calls. Town officials have called the decision a budgetary necessity.

Coleman has said in the past that the fire department has not been able to generate enough revenue, and the town has been spending 1-cent funds, which are intended for infrastructure projects, on firefighters’ salaries.

“The cost to operate a full-time fire department in Mills has become an unworkable burden on the Town’s infrastructure,” Coleman wrote in an April 30 press release.

He has stated that the council has been considering this action for two years. He referred to a 2018 resolution that calls the fire department a “major expenditure” and sought other methods of providing emergency response.

The fire department currently costs Mills roughly $1 million a year between salary and equipment costs. That expenditure would put the town more than $1 million over budget for the 2020 fiscal year, according to a draft FY 2020 budget provided by the council.

By staffing the Mills fire station with county or privately contracted firefighters, Coleman predicts saving between roughly $600,000 and $800,000 annually.

In a letter to the Natrona County Fire Protection District Board, Coleman said Mills would pay $425,000 to the county fire district to staff the Mills fire station with county firefighters. He also offered Mills’ 1-cent funds for repairs and maintenance of the county’s Fire Station No. 7, which often responds to calls in Mills.

Mills would also offer the county fire district 10 percent of any impact funds it receives from the Department of Environmental Quality’s Industrial Siting Council.

The letter asks the county fire district board to respond to the proposal by May 28. Coleman said as of Wednesday they had not yet received a response.

The other option, to contract with a private company, would cost Mills between $200,000 and $400,000 a year, Coleman estimated. Coleman said he is favorable toward that option.

He said there is currently a request for proposals out for contractors to bid on that option, though no RFPs related to that question are on the Mills website.

If a private contractor were to staff the Mills fire station, it would be out of the town’s hands to decide whom the contractor hired, Coleman said. He said these options would relieve the town of the burden of providing benefits to employees, saving the town money.

Tyler Houser, a Mills Fire Department engineer and paramedic, spoke on behalf of the Mills firefighters. He read a letter addressed to the mayor, the council and Mills citizens.

He said the decision to eliminate the department “completely disregards the safety of the citizens and taxpayers.” He also questioned the town’s motives, saying the firefighters attempted to propose money-saving measures before the council voted to reduce the department, but town officials failed to meet them to discuss options.

He provided a May 3 letter from Coleman to the Mills firefighters union president, Jeremy Todd. In that letter, Coleman writes, “What seems to be the case is that the firemen are unaware of the budget related discussions with the prior Fire Chief that took place in 2018 and which resulted in a directive to the Chief which must never have been implemented.”

That directive was in the form of the 2018 resolution referenced above. The letter continues: “The opportunity to realistically address this has seemingly been lost.”

Coleman writes in the letter that town officials would meet with the union to “cover the topics that should have been covered by the fire department’s leadership much earlier.”

“These will not be contractual negotiations,” the letter continues.

Houser said the firefighters did work to propose budget solutions. Those measures included forgoing raises and helping with tree and fire hydrant maintenance.

Houser also touched on Mills’ decision to switch from a third-party ambulance billing company to internal billing. With the third-party company, the town generated between $18,000 and $30,000 per month. When the town switched to internal billing, it generated only $18,000 over four months, according to Houser.

The firefighters have recommended moving back to a third-party billing system to make up for the lost revenue.

Coleman said the third-party billing company did not provide detailed records of billings, and for transparency purposes, the town had to bring billing in house. He said they currently use the same billing software as Evansville.

As for the claim that town officials declined to meet with the firefighters’ union, Coleman said he legally could not discuss labor negotiations.

The decision to reduce the department has left residents and neighboring fire departments wondering how fires in Mills will be handed, and by whom. Without the Mills Fire Department, the Natrona County Fire Protection District will likely pick up most of those calls, according to a department spokesperson.

The county department does not have ambulances, however, so the burden of emergency medical transports would fall to the Wyoming Medical Center and Evansville Fire-EMS. Coleman said response times would not increase with the new proposals.

Given the added burden of taking fire and emergency medical calls in Mills, neighboring departments have told the Star-Tribune they see no way emergency response times would not increase in Mills — and potentially for the surrounding communities.

Whether response calls would increase under the arrangements proposed Wednesday is yet to be seen. Also yet to be seen is whether efforts to recall Coleman, which ostensibly began Wednesday, move forward.

Follow city reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites.

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©2019 Casper Star Tribune, Wyo.

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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