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Nisswa: Council, firefighters clash over request to increase relief benefit amount

Firefighters accuse three council members of not supporting them. Council says it's looking out for taxpayers.

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Nisswa firefighters and their supporters, among others, filled several rows at the Jan. 18, 2022, city council meeting.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal
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NISSWA — Three Nisswa City Council members said they were looking out for city taxpayers when they declined a Nisswa Fire Relief Association request to support increasing the retirement relief benefit amount for firefighters.

Firefighters attending the Tuesday, Jan. 18, city council meeting accused the council members of not supporting their fire department.

The town will remember this when it’s time to vote.
Joe Hall, assistant fire chief

“I’m very, very disappointed in this council that you guys can’t stand up and support your department,” Richard Geike, a 35-year firefighter and former fire chief, said after the 3-0 council vote.

“The town will remember this when it’s time to vote,” said Assistant Fire Chief Joe Hall.

Firefighters and supporters filled several rows in the council chambers. Council members Don Jacobson and Ross Krautkremer were absent Jan. 18.

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That left Mayor John Ryan and council members Mark Utzinger and Mark Froehle, who voted against the fire relief association’s request to raise the firefighter retirement relief benefit amount from $4,000 to $5,700.

We support the fire department. There’s just a lot of questions yet.
John Ryan, mayor

The relief association fund had a closing value of nearly $2 million at the end of 2021. Retiring firefighters currently receive $4,000 per year served after 20 years as a lump sum. Funds are also a death benefit for families of firefighters who die.

An independent investment firm - Stifel in Baxter - manages the funds, with no funding requested from the city.

However, the city would assume liability if the stock market crashed, the fund got too low or if many firefighters retired at the same time.

That was the council’s worry.

First, Ryan said the council sent a list of seven questions to the fire department after an October workshop regarding the relief fund, but never received any answers. While lengthy discussion did take place at the Jan. 18 meeting, Ryan said that meeting was a time to vote, not to ask the questions from last fall.

Assistant Fire Chief Joe Hall said they thought it would be best to answer the questions publicly.

After discussions - which included financial questions that Eric Davidge, financial adviser with Stifel, answered - all three council members remained concerned that Nisswa taxpayers could be on the hook for relief benefits. They said they couldn’t support the additional $1,700 more per year in benefits.

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Hall acknowledged that the relief association could increase the benefit without council support. He said the benefit is a recruitment tool for the city, especially at a time when people aren’t banging down the door to become firefighters.

Ryan asked if the fund dipped too low, could the relief association adjust the yearly contribution. Hall said yes, the association can vote to raise or lower the amount. Geike explained more details of how the relief fund works and when and how the city would contribute.

I need to learn more about this. Right now I’m just nervous.
Mark Utzinger, council member

Ryan said he was looking out for taxpayers as a whole in the case the fund went belly up or dipped too low. Ryan said he’s heard from firefighters and others that the fire department feels the council is disrespecting the department because council members are asking questions.

“That’s not accurate,” he said, adding he thinks firefighters’ compensation can be increased if the money is there; and it looks like the fund is strong.

However, he wasn’t ready to commit the city and taxpayers to potentially have to shoulder enormous debt when the relief association could handle it now and council members could continue to educate themselves.

“I think that we can all work together on communicating and educating each other but think there’s a need to really look hard at this,” Ryan said.

Hall said the council was worried about a doomsday, catastrophic event, and advised council members stop, get educated and look at it.

Froehle said as council members, they have a fiduciary responsibility to taxpayers.

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“We support the fire department,” Ryan said. “There’s just a lot of questions yet. Our job is to worry about the worst case scenario. I don’t think it will happen, but I have questions. I want to work with firefighters to maximize what they get.”

Until he has more questions answered, Ryan said he wasn’t ready to move the city past the $4,000 benefit amount at this point.

Utzinger said the council wants to support both the police and fire department, and does support the current benefit level of $4,000. But he’s worried about 2022 and doesn’t want to commit Nisswa citizens.

“There’s nothing that holds you back from giving this benefit to fire department employees. The only difference is there’s no safety net for you,” Utzinger said.

“I need to learn more about this. Right now I’m just nervous,” he said.

Hall reminded the council the fire department is made up of volunteers who work hard for the city. Nisswa joined three other cities in the state that declined to support an increase in the relief benefit, he said.

Ryan cut off discussion and called for the council vote.

Other cities

Looking at two other area cities, the Pequot Lakes City Council in January approved the fire relief association’s request for a benefit level increase from $6,500 per year of service to $6,900 per year of service.

Crosslake Fire Chief Chip Lohmiller said that department’s pension is set up differently than Nisswa’s and doesn’t have an exact amount per year of service per firefighter. Instead, each firefighter has a percentage of the retirement fund depending on years and months served.

Nancy Vogt, editor, may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.

Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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