Firefighters want another chief

By Tom Coombe

Ely firefighters say their department needs a chief and that the city should fill the position vacated by the retirement of Gary Klun.<BR><BR>That was the message delivered to city council members last week by members of the volunteer fire department.<BR><BR>Most of Ely’s 27 firefighters attended Tuesday’s council study session, called to gather input on the future of the department’s only paid full-time position.<BR><BR>And while city officials have explored cost-cutting alternatives such as assigning Klun’s duties to current personnel or creating a public safety director position that would incorporate supervision of both the police and fire operations, firefighters urged the council to resist the temptation.<BR><BR>“We think it would be good to replace the fire chief,” said Ely firefighter Joe Gerzin, who addressed the council last week. “You don’t have to replace a chief at Gary Klun’s wage. You could create a position to get the job done at lesser pay.”<BR><BR>With salary and benefits, the fire chief position cost about $71,000 a year ago, but nearly half of the expenses are absorbed by neighboring entities including the city of Winton, Morse and Fall Lake townships, who contract with Ely for fire protection.<BR><BR>“You have a unique opportunity where somebody else is paying for half of what we have,” said Gerzin. “I think it would be silly to give that up.”<BR><BR>Council member Butch Pecha, who served as assistant chief under Klun and has also left the department, said the council should listen to the firefighters.<BR><BR>“These people want a chief,” said Pecha. “They need someone in charge who can take that responsibility.”<BR><BR>The council took no action last week and made no indication how they’ll proceed.<BR><BR>But city clerk John Tourville has previously said that he expects the city will have 1.5 fewer full-time employees next year, following the retirements of Klun and a library employee.<BR><BR>And council member Paul Kess noted both declines in local government aid and a series of budget cuts implemented the last two years.<BR><BR>According to Kess, the city may not be able to afford a full-time fire chief.<BR><BR>“We may have just part-time money,” said Kess. “We have to try and deliver service with fewer resources. That’s a fact... If we have to change, now is the time.”<BR><BR>Gerzin said that the city should explore other alternatives, such as increasing contract fees to the neighboring entities, to maintain the current fire operation.<BR><BR>“Maybe the townships need to pay up a little bit more,” said Gerzin.<BR><BR>Firefighters studied the operation of their department as well as other northeastern Minnesota departments and found that Ely has one of the largest overall territories, covering 400 square miles.<BR><BR>They said a switch to an all-volunteer crew could make it more difficult to maintain equipment, one of Klun’s many duties, and could hamper response time as well, if dispatcher service were eliminated along with the chief position.<BR><BR>Klun and the dispatchers are all certified to drive Ely’s fire trucks. According to Gerzin, only four other department members are qualified.<BR><BR>“You might wait at the fire hall and go through 10 people before someone comes who’s able to drive the truck,” said Gerzin.<BR><BR>At this time, Ely has taken no action on the future of dispatcher service. The council rejected a budget committee recommendation to eliminate the positions in 2002, although there has been speculation that the jobs could again be in jeopardy if the city faces further budget strife.<BR><BR>Ely’s firefighters are also pushing for the dispatchers to be retained.<BR><BR>“It‘s the department’s view that the reason we’re as successful as we are is because of the dispatchers,” said Gerzin.<BR><BR>Gerzin said that if the city opts against replacing Klun, using the dispatchers as chief “on a rotating schedule” may be an acceptable alternative, but other department members spoke in support of maintaining the full-time chief position.<BR><BR>Mayor Frank Salerno said the council would gather more information before making a decision.<BR><BR>“Whatever our decision is it certainly won’t be at the expense of the safety of this community,” said Salerno. “I don’t think there’s a question about the capability of the fire department. There’s no question it’s a class act. You people know what you’re doing.”<BR><BR>