Falls City City Council members, against the recomendation of the Management Committee, last Monday (May 5) voted 7-1 to keep two paid drivers in the Falls City Fire Department. Current driver Ralph Gilkerson has decided to retire and his position will now be filled.
City Administrator Gary Jorn, on behalf of the Management Committee, recommended cutting the position and, ultimately, when Fire Chief Ken Simpson retires, going strictly to an all-volunteer fire department.
“Currently, the annual budget is $185,000 and 85 percent of that is wages,” Jorn said. “We look at it as an opportunity to shift funds to other departments.”
Council members didn’t agree. Steve Scholl made a motion to replace Gilkerson and Kirby Robidoux seconded that motion. Jerry Oliver, Mike Dougherty, Don Ferguson, Jim Wisdom and Angie Nolte all voted to pass the motion. Casting the lone vote to delete a driver was Judy Murphy.
Part-time driver and First Assistant Fire Chief Jon McQueen, one of about 10 FC Volunteer Firemen on hand at the meeting, asked about the future status of part-time drivers being paid if the recommendation was approved. He also suggested that making a change could affect property insurance rates for Falls City residents.
With two full-time firemen on the department, Falls City provides fire coverage 24 hours per day throughout the week, starting at 8 a.m. Monday. One of the two works an eight-hour shift on Saturdays, leaving 56 hours per week covered only by six part-time drivers and the FC Volunteer Fire Dept.
“I think we need at least two drivers and the part-time drivers,” Scholl said. “It’s a safety issue. If we go strictly to volunteers, you’re going to run into problems.”
Jorn said most cities the size of Falls City are served exclusively by volunteer fire departments.
“The budget is so tight, that it comes to a point where you’re going to have to cut some kind of service,” Jorn said. “If you have volunteers pick it up, you’re really not losing anything. You still have volunteers pick up that service.”
Robidoux disagreed with that assessment hearing Simpson say the average response time of a full-time driver was three minutes, compared to 15 minutes with a part-time driver.
“I think you lose quite a bit in 12 minutes of response time,” Robidoux said.
About 10 years ago, Simpson fought the Council against going from three paid drivers to two. He said the 56-hour gap it created hasn’t created issues “thanks to the good volunteers we have.”
“If we go down to 112 hours, though, I think we may have some problems. I don’t want to see us lose (one position). I think, with 56 hours not covered, we have enough dedication to cover those hours. But 112 hours? I see problems down the road.
“Somewhere down the line I’ve been told that Falls City going to step forward and be a leader in progress instead of stepping back – if we go down to one driver, we’re stepping back. We’re not progressing as everybody says we want to be in this town,” Simpson said.
In other news from the meeting:
— The Council approved the resignation of Fourth Ward Councilman Don Ferguson, who has moved out of the Ward. “I’ve really enjoyed the last two years of serving – again – the City of Falls City. This was my third time around on the Council. Ferguson thanked Mayor Tim Hersh, Jorn, Carol Bentley and their staff, the FC Police Dept., Fire Dept. and all city employees.
“We have a great group of guys and gals who work hard,” he said.
Ferguson lauded efforts of the Falls City Library & Arts Center and encouraged the Council to try and increase its budget in coming years, noting the facility is closed one full day per week.
“I think you should look at that longer next time,” he said.
Ferguson also thanked the other members of the Council, as well as EDGE.
“That’s the biggest plus this city has had in a long, long time,” he said, referring to the economic development group.
“This Council should always stay proactive with economic development. Let’s not go backwards.”
Mayor Hersh, who appointed Ferguson to the Council two years ago, thanked him for his service.
“It’s been a pleasure having you here,” he said. “We really appreciate your service.”
— On the recommendation of the Board of Public Works the Council approved the expenditure of $181,454 to contract with Wright Tree Service to trim trees and limbs away from power lines.
Utility Supt. Alan Romine said city crews had fallen behind on this task because of the number of projects the past two or three years including new industry and FEMA projects.
“We don’t have the manpower,” Hersh said, to get caught up. “Hopefully, next time we won’t get backed up like this.”
Romine said the trimming would be good for “3-4 years.”
— Andrea McClintock, Program Director for the Nebraska Department of Economic Development Certified Community Program presented the city with a certificate as a Nebraska Department of Economic Development Certified Community. This will be the second time Falls City has been certified. Only 37 communities in the state have attained the certification.
— A motion by second ward Council Person Judy Murphy to place Stop signs for north and south traffic at 20th and Stone died for a lack of a second.
— Mayor Tim Hersh cast the tie-breaking vote to hold all council meetings at 7 p.m. Murphy made the motion. Previously, the second meeting of the month started at 6.