When the Town of Mills reduces its fire department to administration only by July 1, it will leave nine full-time firefighters and one part-time firefighter in limbo. That includes Fire Chief Justin Melin.
“Just to think about it is overwhelming,” Melin said.
Melin has worked for the department for six years. He has a wife and two boys: 7 and 9 years old. His wife is a stay-at-home mom, and they’ve been kept up nights worrying about what they will do at the end of June.
“I’m the lone breadwinner,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation.”
The Mills Town Council voted to reduce the department at its April 24 meeting, and the decision affects nine full-time and one part-time firefighters. Melin said if he wants to stay in fire service, he will need to move his family. If he chooses not to stay in fire service, he will lose what he has paid into his pension so far.
“I’ve got six years in my pension,” he said. “If I give it up now, it’s six years I can’t get back.”
He said he would not be able to join Casper’s department until it started the testing process for new hires again, which Melin said would likely not be for another two years.
Melin doesn’t expect firefighters to be the only ones affected by the change. In lieu of the Mills department, the town will contract with departments from surrounding communities. Melin said that could be a problem.
“Response times will become a lot slower,” he said. “It definitely will affect public safety.”
Mills responds to between 1,200 and 1,700 calls annually, Melin said. If surrounding departments have to start taking those calls instead, it could create problems not only for Mills but those other departments as well.
“It increases their call volume as well as the potential for missed calls,” he explained. “It’s kind of a trickle effect.”
Casper Fire Chief Thomas Solberg said this is one of his major concerns as well.
“Are we going to be called in more often than we used to?” Solberg asked.
He said response times will likely go up if Casper’s department has to make up for Mills’ department being cut, particularly because the Casper station closest to Mills is also the city’s busiest station.
“When we start getting pulled away, that’s when it starts affecting response times,” Solberg said.
Solberg added he is worried about the lack of discussion about the issue, and the short notice. He said he would like to know more about what Mills is planning to do to bridge the gap that will be created if the department ceases being able to respond to calls.
“That’s a pretty short time for us to evaluate what our options are,” he said.
Mayor Seth Coleman said Mills is working to ensure response times and public safety are not affected by the change.
“Public safety is the first thing we look at when doing this,” he said.
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So far, Coleman said he could not release any details about which departments Mills might contract with for fire and medical calls. In a previous interview, Coleman told a Star-Tribune reporter Mills would not be using Casper’s services. When asked again at a later date, he said he did not recall saying that.
“It is not my view that we would never work with Casper,” he said. “I don’t want to get specific into any of that, we hope very shortly to be discussing those details.”
Mills’ fire department union president Jeremy Todd said he believes the decision to eliminate the firefighting jobs is a retaliation over union contract negotiations.
“It took us very much by surprise when they just walked away from the table in the middle of negotiations,” Todd said.
He added the town presented the Mills professional firefighters association with a two-year contract in late March. When the union pushed back on one of the elements of the contract, he said Mills officials walked away from negotiations.
“If you present a contract, I assume you have the money to pay for that contract,” he said. He did say the union was informed of budgetary concerns, but continued there was no indication that the firefighters were at risk of losing their jobs.
Coleman said the decision to eliminate the firefighter positions had nothing to do with the contract negotiations.
“I would absolutely disagree with that,” Coleman said.
Coleman said Mills has looked at every other possible way to reduce costs, but the fire department salaries are among the town’s largest expenses.
“That’s really the only place we can cut,” he said.
In May 2018, Mills approved $1.1 million for the fire department in its budget for fiscal year 2019. At the last Town Council meeting, the fiscal 2019 budget was amended, cutting the fire department’s budget to a little over $900,000. That cut does not account for the reduction in firefighting staff that will go into effect for the 2020 Fiscal Year, beginning July 1.
The fire department is the second-most costly entity the town funds after the police department.
Coleman said the fire department has struggled to generate revenue for some time and Mills has had to use its 1-cent tax revenue to fund the department because of it. He said taxpayers expect that money to be used for infrastructure projects.
“It’s really not appropriate at all,” he said.
Coleman said Mills has been discussing the fire department’s burden on the town budget for two years. In June 2018, the Town Council approved a resolution “regarding studying and evaluating cost effective means of fire department and ambulance provisions.”
The resolution called the fire department a “major town expenditure” and sought to evaluate potential alternatives to maintaining a full-time fire department, or ways to reduce the cost of the department.
“We got very little cooperation in dealing with this,” Coleman said. “Most generally from the department itself.”
The Mills Town Council will meet at 7 p.m. May 8 and Coleman said he hopes community members frustrated with the decision to eliminate the firefighter jobs come with suggestions for how to balance the budget without reducing the department.