Minnesota Fire Department Merger Inches Ahead

Merging these two entities would seem to be a natural fit.

Taxpayers in South St. Paul and West St. Paul are footing the bill for two expensive, similarly structured, full-time career fire departments.

This is happening even though the suburban St. Paul neighbors have few major fires to fight and, as required by state law, HealthEast ambulances respond to all medical emergencies for the 40,000 residents of both cities.

The fire departments cost a combined $3.9 million annually, a huge sum compared to what is paid by the vast majority of Minnesota cities that rely on volunteers. The two departments currently have 34 firefighters, supplemented by administrative staffs.

But merging the two departments has proved to be anything but easy or fast. That much became apparent Wednesday night in West St. Paul, during a rare joint session of the elected representatives of the two cities.

The 14 City Council members, including South St. Paul Mayor Beth Baumann and her West St. Paul counterpart John Zanmiller, met to discuss progress in merger talks that started about two years ago.

There didn't turn out to be that much progress to discuss.

A work committee staffed by administrators, fire chiefs, union representatives and council members from both cities outlined general principles for such a merger. One included no initial budget cuts or layoffs. Obstacles include harmonizing collective bargaining agreements and deciding whether firefighters in the unified department will have governmental civil service protections.

In the end, the councils informally agreed to support formal resolutions to keep trying to merge and to create a governing authority for the unified force.

Whatever frustration exists about the slow pace was mixed by expressions of hope.

"We don't have the answers. We need to start somewhere," West St. Paul City Council Member David Wright said, adding that fire management is "a far more complicated business" than he had imagined.

His colleague, Mark Tessmer, said the merger would be "very good for the fire departments and for the citizens of West St. Paul and South St. Paul." But Tessmer also said he didn't want "to spend another year and a half to figure this out."

Expressing what appeared to be the prevailing South St. Paul sentiment, City Council Member Tom Seaberg said: "Let's take it to the next step and move forward with the process."

Although multimillion-dollar state-aid cuts since 2003 gave impetus to the talks, South St. Paul City Council Member Christopher Lehmann said the negotiations are no longer "driven by money," but rather by how to "provide services better."

In fact, the work committee identified $378,000 in extra one-time merger costs. If that's the case, some might ask, Why bother?

But former West St. Paul Mayor Rollin H. Crawford, who works for a law firm that represents both cities, said the talks are more promising than they appear.

"It's pretty historic," Crawford said after the joint meeting.

"These two city councils have a different character. They are less parochial and more cosmopolitan."

South St. Paul City Administrator Stephen King also came away encouraged by the two-hour meeting at Thompson Park Lodge.

Questions aside, "the revolutionary thing is the two city councils are signaling their willingness to create one department and set up a separate governing board for that department," King said.

During the meeting, West St. Paul City Council Member Jim Englin suggested the hiring of an independent consultant to speed the process.

"I don't think anyone can say we've put a fire consolidation together," Englin said.