Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Council OKs home rental for ambulance driver housing

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 12/14/17

TOWER— City officials here are moving forward with renting a private residence to house prospective emergency responders for the city’s planned paid on-call ambulance service.

The council …

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Council OKs home rental for ambulance driver housing

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TOWER— City officials here are moving forward with renting a private residence to house prospective emergency responders for the city’s planned paid on-call ambulance service.

The council voted 4-1 on Tuesday night to proceed with the plan, despite opposition from Councilor Lance Dougherty, who questioned the need for a paid on-call system for the ambulance.

“I’m in favor of leaving the ambulance the way it is operating now,” he said.

But Ambulance Director Steve Altenburg and Mayor Josh Carlson argued that the number of calls handled by volunteers and Altenburg has increased dramatically in recent years. Carlson noted that Altenburg has done 246 runs so far this year, while volunteer Jake Schmidt has done 171. “We are very lucky we have Steve and Jake,” said Carlson. But that pace is not sustainable forever,” said Altenburg.

Altenburg said the 120 hours per week when the department would have paid on-call staff available would provide a needed break to the system’s volunteers.

Dougherty noted that the addition of First Responders to the ambulance system has provided some relief for other volunteers. “That solves an issue,” said Dougherty. “That has helped, most definitely,” acknowledged Altenburg, “but because we’ve won a battle doesn’t mean we stop fighting the war.”

Altenburg said the service has still had to turn down 144 transfers for the year, through the end of November, due to lack of personnel. He said volunteers were able to handle 64 transfers.

City Clerk Treasurer Linda Keith said the transfers net the city about $1,000 per run, not including the salaries of staff, generating about $150,000 per year if the city was able to do all the transfers. But the city is ramping up at the same time that several other larger area departments are doing the same, hoping to tap the transfer dollars, which could limit the actual number available to the Tower Ambulance in the future.

Councilor Brooke Anderson asked about the cost of the house rental.

“It would be $1,937 for each six-month period,” Keith answered.

“Ah, plus utilities,” added Altenburg. “They’re offering us a fair value, that’s why we’re considering it.”

Councilor Kevin Fitton was convinced, and motioned to allow the department to move forward with the house rental. “It doesn’t look like, what $3,000 in a year, and it sounds like with the estimates you already have here there’s enough to be net positive.”

The city will likely wait for a few months before renting the facility in either case. Altenburg said he’ll need to re-advertise for the on-call positions, which means the new system likely won’t be up and running until March.

In other business, the council gave the green light for the Tower Economic Development Authority to move forward with construction of an approximately 8,000-8,500 square foot building to provide space for the expansion of Lamppa Manufacturing as well as some additional space for a second business, or for a later expansion for Lamppa. TEDA had made the recommendation to move forward with the larger building at its regular meeting last week.

Carlson expressed skepticism of the idea initially, arguing that he didn’t want the city to have to pay the cost of heating empty space if a tenant for the additional space didn’t come along.

“I’d feel a hell of a lot better if I knew there was something that would go in there right away,” said Carlson.

Altenburg questioned whether the space would meet the needs of many other businesses. But City Engineer Matt Bolf said the space would likely simply be roughed in and would be finished to meet the needs of whatever tenant was interested. “It would be left mostly open,” said Bolf. Altenburg also questioned if the additional space would make it more difficult for one of the tenants to build a future expansion.

TEDA President Marshall Helmberger argued that it would be much cheaper to build the extra square footage as part of the current project rather than build a second building a few years down the line. He noted that city officials have been complaining about a lack of storage space for the ambulance department and suggested the extra space could be used temporarily for city storage if a tenant was not immediately forthcoming.

Helmberger also noted that the Norwegian-based company Glami-tec, which is headed by Tower Vision 2025 investor Lars Hansted, is seriously interested in opening a franchise of the specialty glass manufacturer in Tower, and that the extra space would likely meet their needs.

Dougherty agreed that the city needs to encourage business development, and noted the lack of commercial space in the city. “What have we got to offer someone right now?” he asked. “This might be the perfect opportunity.”

Councilor Brad Matich agreed, and supported Dougherty’s motion to move forward with the larger proposed building, which the council then approved.

In other action, the council again declined to approve the installation of a street light on an existing pole near the entrance to the Marjo Motel, despite the motel operator’s offer to pay the $197 installation cost along with the electric bill for its operation. TEDA had addressed the issue at their December meeting and had forwarded a recommendation to install the light given that it’s an identified public safety issue and that the problem was created by the city, which significantly modified the entrance to the motel as a result of the Hwy. 169 bridge project. Helmberger said the new entrance is difficult to see, even in daylight. “At nighttime, it’s very difficult,” he said. “The street light seemed like a relatively low cost fix,” he added. The council has twice before rejected the request, initially based on claims by the city clerk that the project would cost $20,000. At the last meeting, Carlson suggested the light would cost $15,000. But while the council seemed to agree this time that the light cost would actually be minimal, and that the motel operator would pay for it, they raised objections that the light would be located on private property. The light, in fact, appears to be located within the public right-of-way, which is why MnDOT’s approval would be required for the light. MnDOT engineer Duane Hill has already agreed to installation of the light in the right-of-way if the city submits the request form to Minnesota Power.

Dougherty suggested looking at extending street lights to other parts of the city’s west end. “If you put just one there, you’re essentially putting it in for a private service,” he said.

“And it would be on private property,” said Keith. “And it’s on private property,” repeated Dougherty.

Altenburg said if the council was going to approve a streetlight at the motel’s highway entrance, he wanted one by his driveway. “My street is dark, I want the city to put up a light on my private property, too.”

When asked following the meeting what documentation she had that the light pole is located on private property, Keith said she would have to have the site measured to be certain. This reporter measured the pole on Wednesday, which appears to be located well within the highway right-of-way, which is not considered private property.

In other business, the council:

• Agreed to proceed with legal service to a property owner at 205 N. Third Street, whose fence was recently determined to be partially on a neighbor’s property. The city will be seeking an order to relocate or remove the fence.

• Approved changes to the rules at the Tower Airport, as recommended by the Airport Commission, including a provision to begin termination of hangar leases if payment is not made within 90 days of the due date. The airport will also require each hangar owner to base an airplane in Tower, so the hangar owners are using airport services and not simply using the space for storage. The council also approved a modest tie-down fee for plane owners who make use of that opportunity.

• Approved a resolution establishing a water and sewer rate increase effective in 2018.

• Gave the first reading to an ordinance change that would incorporate a 40-acre parcel on the city’s west end into the city limits.

• Approved an additional $1,000 in longevity pay to cover a portion of Randy Johnson’s medical costs for 2018. The council voted 4-1 for the increase, with Carlson voting no.

• Learned that Keith will be switching her union representation from MAPE to the Teamsters. Keith said the change would have no additional cost to the city.

• Approved an initial pay estimate for Utility Systems of America on the Hoodoo Point project for $148,658.

• Approved a 2018 FAA Airport pre-application.

• Tabled action on the city budget until a second meeting set for Monday, Dec. 18.

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