MARSHALL - Higher fees for firefighting services have been proposed for many Lyon County townships, and county residents at a Thursday townships meeting wanted some answers about it.
Amid concerns that the proposed increases are too much for rural residents, Marshall Fire Chief Marc Klaith spoke during an annual meeting of Lyon County townships on Thursday night. Klaith said the increases were needed to help meet equipment costs for county fire departments, and to share costs more evenly.
Cities in Lyon County contract with surrounding townships to provide firefighting services, usually charging the townships for each section of land in the fire zone. This year, the fire departments in Marshall, Tracy and Cottonwood have all proposed new township rates of $228 per section, Klaith said. In comparison, townships contracting with Marshall for fire coverage paid $190 per section in 2011-2012, for a total of more than $28,000. Marshall's fire zone includes Fairview, Lake Marshall, Stanley, Lynd, Clifton and Sodus townships.
For more than a decade, the cost per section for fire services to townships has only been raised about $5 a year, Klaith said. While it was less costly for townships, he said that arrangement was "not even close" to enough to provide for the increasing cost of maintenance and replacement of fire trucks and other equipment. Area fire departments also have to comply with a growing number of mandates that govern how long equipment may be used, he said.
Klaith said the proposed rates also try to distribute fire department costs more fairly. At lower rates, taxpayers living in area cities essentially subsidize fire equipment purchases for rural residents. About 11 percent of Marshall's fire calls are to rural addresses, Klaith said, and for smaller cities the majority of fire calls may be rural.
Klaith said the plan for Marshall fire services is to keep fees at $228 a section for the next two years, and gradually phase in higher rates. By 2021, he said, Marshall's rate for fire service would be around $500 a section. Per-section costs for fire service from Marshall would likely be lower than for other towns, Klaith said, because Marshall gets a smaller proportion of rural fire calls.
Klaith said the proposed fire rates were based partly on a formula provided by the League of Minnesota Cities. The LMC's formula figures township fire payments as a percentage of a fire department's operational budget, and takes factors like average number of fire calls, market values and population into account when determining that percentage.
Members of the audience voiced concerns that the cost increases were too high, or that they would have a disproportionate effect on rural residents and townships. One audience member questioned whether increasing values of farmland would drive fire costs higher. Klaith repeated that market value wasn't the only factor involved in the new formula.
"What if other fire departments don't want to go along?" asked another audience member.
Klaith said Marshall would still offer mutual aid to other fire departments. However, he said the struggle for funding will not be getting any easier for smaller departments in the county, and there's a risk of falling behind.
Klaith said the three fire departments are willing to work with other cities and townships on the issue.
"We know it isn't easy," he said. However, he said, "We need to do something."
Making changes to township fire agreements, including fee rates, requires city approval. Marshall's proposed new rates will be on the agenda at the Marshall City Council's meeting Tuesday.