The Mills Fire Department will remain intact after the union representing its firefighters reached an agreement with town officials, the groups announced Friday in a joint statement. The department’s firefighters were set to lose their jobs July 1, the start of the new fiscal year.
The department will continue to provide service for Mills for fiscal year 2020, according to the announcement.
The firefighters’ new contract will be for one year. Fire department spokesperson Tyler Houser said the contracts have spanned two years in the past, but Mills officials requested that the new contract be for one year only. For the most part, though, the department will remain as is, he said.
“It will pretty much be business as usual,” Houser said.
The town will be eliminating a number of unfilled full-time and part-time positions in the department through attrition. There will be seven full-time firefighters in the department. There were previously nine firefighter positions but Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said only seven are currently filled. To make up for the gap, the department will utilize pay-per-call, volunteer and part-time firefighters, he said.
Coleman said the new contract will cost the town roughly $750,000 in the new fiscal year, saving roughly $200,000 from the previous year.
The town is also considering eliminating emergency medical transport from the department, meaning that when the fire department responds to a medical call, Mills firefighters, who are also EMTs, would provide medical attention but rather than transport a patient to the hospital, they would wait for the Wyoming Medical Center ambulance to arrive to complete that transport.
Coleman said the town is heavily considering that option, but nothing has been finalized yet. He added this would actually keep emergency response personnel in Mills and improve public safety by ensuring Mills firefighters are able to respond to calls in town and stay in town rather than be pulled away to transport a patient to the hospital.
He said that would help with the budget by keeping the staffing requirements for the department low.
The town is reworking its 2020 proposed budget and will have to approve it by June 18.
The first draft of Mills’ proposed fiscal year 2020 budget included a $909,388 expenditure for the fire department. With equipment added on top of that, Mills Mayor Seth Coleman said the total cost came out to more than $1 million.
The town had already reduced the fiscal year 2019 funding for the department from $1,101,015 to $919,072 through an emergency budget ordinance passed in April. The new budget that will account for the $750,000 fire department cost will include reductions across other departments, including the police department, public works and administrative services. Coleman said there will be no layoffs and that the reductions will be through attrition only.
The town canceled a Wednesday meeting where a second reading of the proposed budget was scheduled. Coleman told the Star-Tribune that the all-day Tuesday negotiations left no time to prepare for the Wednesday meeting, which led to its cancellation. The next Town Council meeting is Wednesday. Coleman said a draft of the new budget will be available by then.
A finalized version of the budget will be voted on during a special meeting at 7 p.m. June 18.
The fire department had been in limbo for more than a month. Town officials voted in April to eliminate the department’s nine firefighters amid budget stress and a more than $1 million deficit moving into the 2020 fiscal year. Public outcry over the decision has been severe. Every public meeting since the April decision has been packed with residents condemning the Town Council.
Residents worried for the safety of their families and homes, and for the livelihoods of the firefighters who would have lost their jobs. Neighboring fire departments worried about response time and mutual aid. Homeowners worried about insurance rates.
Some began calling for Coleman’s resignation in late May. Some still are. Mills Resident Leah Juarez told the Star-Tribune the past month has left her with a lot of questions. Juarez has asked Coleman to resign from his position at past council meetings. She said she still believes he should resign.
Coleman said he would be happy to sit down with anyone who has questions about the budget, but he disagreed with any characterizations that the current town council has been dishonest about the process.
The negotiations that ultimately brought the fire department back from near elimination were an effort by both the town and the firefighters’ union to avoid a long and costly legal battle.
After the April vote, union president Jeremy Todd called the decision a retaliation over tense contract negotiations. He said town officials had violated Wyoming collective bargaining laws by failing to meet for 30 days to negotiate a contract and by refusing to go to arbitration after a contract could not be agreed upon. Todd said the union was prepared to sue the town over these alleged violations.
Coleman denied the allegations but met with the union in an all-day meeting Tuesday to try to come to an agreement about the fate of the department. The meeting — a formal mediation meant to stave off the impending legal action against the town by the union — began at 10 a.m. Tuesday and continued until at least 5 p.m. The union had said beforehand it would not accept anything short of a contract.
While some residents may still be wary, Houser thinks this will be an opportunity to learn and do better in the future.
“I’d like to think this could be a breath of fresh air,” he said.