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Fire department needs dedicated funding

A restructuring of the Rochester Fire Department to include a number of full-time staff positions is being launched with the help of a $2.4 million federal grant, but maintaining increased services will require taxpayer support in the future.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik, who pushed for an assessment of the department's current and future needs, has been responsible and proactive in spurring change at the department, from requesting an independent fire study committee to look into the needs, to helping to secure the grant to meet those needs. However, it will be up to city council and city administration to ensure voters understand how and why long-term funding of the department is reliant on taxpayers.

The fire committee earlier this year was transparent in diagnosing the department's key issue, as well as the main symptom of that issue: response times. Based on a 19th century model of firefighting services, the department has operated on a paid, on-call formula that has served the city well in the past. Under the structure, firefighters are alerted to fire emergencies, respond to the fire station and then head to the fire from there. As the city's population, development, traffic patterns and firefighters' distance from the fire station increased, so has response times. So much so that changing the structure to allow for a number of full-time firefighters to staff the station has become necessary.

In August, Cieslik announced the city secured a grant to fund the new positions, which will serve as city employees and act as a supplement to the on-call firefighters. While the grant is expected to fund the new positions for about three years, taxpayers will need to support them when it expires, most likely through a dedicated public safety millage.

While the pitch for a public safety millage isn't expected in 2019, the city will still need support from residents as it prepares for these changes. That includes altering the city's charter to allow for a modern-day staff structure at the department. That will be particularly important as full-time firefighters, as city employees, are likely to unionize and engage in collective bargaining with the city.

As the city's labor attorney has already noted, the city's current charter would essentially allow a unionized department to select their own chief and other unconventional authorities that would only be removed through collective bargaining or a charter amendment prior to unionization, or a new chief coming on board.

Residents should expect to be presented with such technical changes and understand they are being made in good faith and in their best interest. Communicating that in an effective manner will lay the foundation for council and administration to ask voters to buy into that system at a later date.

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