Compromise proposed for fire hall insurance
A member of Abbotsford’s city council believes he has a workable compromise that will allow the local fire district to save money on insuring the city’s public safety building while also keeping the insurance policy with the city.
Ald. Roger Weideman told the Central Fire and EMS board last week that he’s hopeful the city council will be willing to pay an extra $1,659 this year to make up the amount the district would save by switching insurance policies.
Then, in 2021, he said the city would look at its options for switching insurance providers in hopes of saving money on its policy.
Weideman said he’s hoping the city’s insurance provider, Spectrum Insurance, will “come in line” with the price offered by the district’s insurer, the Mac-Gillis Insurance Agency. First, though, he has to get the rest of the council to adopt this plan.
“I think there’s a good chance that it will go through the council, and then we’ll work on getting a lease agreement,” he said.
The debate over insuring Abbotsford’s public safety building, which started last fall, has called attention to the fact that the city and the fire district do not currently have a lease agreement in place for the city-owned fire hall.
Larry Oehmichen, chairman of the district board, has been locked in a debate with city administrator Dan Grady over how to interpret the intergovernmental agreement that was used to form the district in 2016.
On April 6, Oehmichen sent
an email to Grady, claiming that the city, by not having a lease with the district for its fire hall, is “in violation” of the agreement. In a phone interview on April 13, Grady responded to Oehmichen’s email by saying that the city is not solely responsible for getting a lease in place.
“Both sides are equally at fault for the lack of a lease,” he said. “If we’re in violation, so is the fire department.”
Since the fire district has been occupying the fire hall space for years now and the district is paying $1,000 per year in rent, Grady said the city has what amounts to a “verbal” lease agreement.
When it comes to insuring the public safety building, Oehmichen has said that a policy can be written in a way that ensures the city will be made whole if something happens to the building — even if the district is also listed on the policy.
Grady said the city is, in fact, willing to consider an alternative to its current insurance policy by switching to the district’s policy.
“The city’s position is the same as it has always been: We’re not averse to having them insure the building,” he said. “Our only priority is that the taxpayers of the city of Abbotsford take precedence because they paid for that building.”
Grady noted that the city still owes money on the building, and local residents have donated thousands over the years to pay back the loan.
“As long as the city of Abbotsford would receive any payout from insurance, we don’t really care,” he said. “We just need to take care of our taxpayers.”
Weideman also said city offi cials are willing to take on a greater percentage of the premium after re-evaluating how much of the building’s value includes the police department versus the fire hall.
Until now, the district has covered 75 percent of the insurance premium, while the city paid for 25 percent. Based on the revised breakdown, the district will pay 68 percent for its portion of the building, and the city will pay 32 percent.
At last week’s meeting, after hearing Weideman’s proposal, Oehmichen said he wonders why the city wouldn’t want to just to switch insurance policies now instead of paying more to keep the insurance policy it has.
“Why would your taxpayers want to pay extra when it’s the same result?” he asked Weideman.
In response, Weideman said he’s trying to provide a compromise that will satisfy both sides.
“You asked for savings, and we had a difference of opinion here,” he said. “We’re stepping up to the plate to take care of matters.”
If the council approves his proposal, Weideman said the city will re-bill the district for this year’s insurance, with the discounted rate factored in.
Weideman said he doesn’t want the insurance issue to get in the way of an overall good working relationship between the city and the district.
“This is not going to break us,” he said.
Board member Pat Tischendorf said Weideman’s idea was a good way to resolve the situation, though city of Colby representative Nancy O’Brien wondered if Abbotsford officials will continue to question terms of an agreement that was signed by them years ago.
“Is this the tip of the iceberg?” she said. “Does this mean every single point is going to be debated?”
Oehmichen said the district board still needs to vote on whether to accept Abbotsford’s insurance proposal for this year, but the topic was tabled until May so Abbotsford’s council can take action first. Going forward, he said the insurance issue will need to be revisited as a line item in the 2021 budget.
“I don’t have a problem with it to finish the year out,” he said. “It’s something we have to address at budget time.”
_ The board discussed a proposal by district chief Joe Mueller for the district to cover the cost of retirement gifts for longtime firefighters and EMTs, along with something to recognize 20 years of active service.
According to stats provided by Mueller, 14 district members are between the ages of 60 and 70, and another 16 are between 50 and 60, but he only knows of one firefighter who plans on retiring this year. Commemorative axes for firefighters cost between $200 and $300, he said, so the annual cost to the district should not be that high.
During the conversation, however, he said the district still needs to worry about putting enough money aside for major vehicle purchases, even if it doesn’t plan on buying a new fire engine this year, as originally planned.
“If we don’t replace one, we may be replacing two in five years,” he said.
The proposal for recognition gifts was tabled so that a formal proposal can be voted on at next month’s meeting.
_ During his monthly report, Mueller said the district responded to 45 ambulance calls and one fire call between March 19 and April 16. He noted that 41 firefighters showed up to a Sunday morning house fire, which was put out quickly with minimal damage.