It was a year of reckoning with what seemed like an insurmountable budget shortfall for the town of Mills. The town’s fire department would be under threat, residents would seek to recall their mayor and nearly a million dollars would need to be trimmed from the town’s budget.
It ostensibly began in April, when Mills officials voted to reduce the city’s fire department to an administrative-only level, effectively stripping the department of its ability to respond to emergencies and laying off nine firefighters in the process.
The public outcry was sustained for weeks as residents tried to lobby the town’s government to keep the fire department.
The whole episode lasted barely a month. The town council voted to cut the department on April 24. By July 7, the firefighters and the town would come to an agreement, securing the department’s safety for at least another year.
When officials first decided to reduce the department, Mills’ chief decision-maker, Mayor Seth Coleman, argued the town didn’t have the money to continue to support it. Mills leaders were organizing the town’s annual budget and were facing a $1 million shortfall, about the cost of the fire department.
Coleman said the department wasn’t generating enough revenue, and the town had been spending 1-cent funds, which are intended for infrastructure projects and other one-time purchases, on firefighters’ salaries. Coleman said that practice wouldn’t be sustainable, especially as the town prepares to become a city after the 2020 census. (The city designation kicks in once a town reaches a population of 4,000 and is certified as such, and will hold Mills to a different set of standards than what the town’s leaders are used to.)
While Coleman promised emergency response wouldn’t be affected by the cut, representatives from fire departments across Natrona County said emergency response times were certain to increase in and around Mills as pressure to respond to emergencies would fall to the rest of the county’s first responders.
Some empathized with Mills’ budgetary woes, but most worried about what would happen without a fire department to respond to emergencies in the town’s rural neighborhoods.
Residents crowded into the Mills Town Hall week after week, pleading with the council to keep the department. Several meetings were standing-room only, with bodies lined into the hallway waiting to address the council. At one point, a resident called for Coleman’s resignation and began circulating a petition to recall him from office.
Still, while town leaders seemed somewhat receptive to the public outcry, no formal steps to reconsider the vote occurred until the firefighters’ union threatened to take the town to court.
The firefighters’ union accused Mills officials of violating state collective bargaining laws. Town officials denied that allegation but agreed to meet with the union to discuss the matter. Town officials had previously declined to meet with the union regarding the firefighters’ contracts.
The meeting ultimately saved the fire department—the fire fighters secured a contract. But the contract would only be for a year, rather than the two-year contract typical for Mills fire fighters in previous years.
When town officials returned to the budget to try to make ends meet without reducing the department, they were able to do so without laying off any employees.
And the fire department would look different. Shortly after agreeing to keep the firefighters on the payroll for at least another year, Coleman appointed Dave North to oversee the department.
North vice-chairs the Natrona County Parks Board, owns an environmental and safety consulting business and worked for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department from 1986-1999. But he has never worked for a fire department and has no EMS experience.
The appointment rubbed some Mills residents the wrong way, and another petition to recall Coleman began circulating online. The outcry soon settled and now things are pretty much back to routine. Still, some residents worry that once the firefighters’ one year contract expires, they’ll be in the same position.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites
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