By Jennifer Von Ohlen
COKATO, MN With every election season comes a series of discussions about which city, school, and government candidates to vote for (or not). This year, however, Cokato residents have also been conversing about the proposed fire and ambulance station, which is expected to be included on November’s ballot.
The Cokato fire and ambulance departments has been working towards upgrading their existing facilities since 2005; the building was originally constructed in the late 1960s.
Within the past 50 years, many changes have taken place, from advancements in technology, to the role of firefighters, to the growth of Cokato.
Because of these changes, the fire and ambulance departments proposed to have a new station built that would “better meet the public safety needs of Cokato and the surrounding area.”
The final decision will be determined by the Tuesday, Nov. 8 election.
The existing facility
The current station, located on Jenks Ave SW, measures 5,000 sq. ft. and is said to “severely” limit the department’s functionality. Fire Chief Hutch Erickson described some of the drawbacks during the May Cokato City council meeting, such as lack of space. Due to not enough storage, the department had to give up one of its older, yet still dependable trucks when it received a new engine, which could have been used to increase pump capacity.
Furthermore, because of the existing station’s low ceilings and narrow doors, two firetrucks had to be custom-made in order to fit in the fire barn resulting in additional cost.
Despite these arrangements, the lack of space within the fire barn requires trucks to park so close to each other that the doors of two adjoining vehicles cannot be opened at the same time, and the heavy rescue vehicle only has an inch of ceiling clearance when it enters the barn.
“We’ve hit the building just because there’s that little space between what we have and what we need,” stated volunteer firefighter Scott Meyers. “When they built this, they never envisioned trucks this big in this building.”
He continued, “I think that’s the big thing with this new building, [it] is just storage and the ability to just not have to worry about when you’re parking a truck or something. It still freaks me out. It freaks out the new people, cause they’re like, ‘I don’t want to drive,’ and you’re like, ‘why?’ ‘Because I don’t want to park it.’ It is scary, putting a very big, expensive piece of equipment through a little, tiny door.”
It is also a tight squeeze for the ambulance to fit in the fire barn, with 3 to 6 inches of clearance front and back. Because of this, ambulance personal always open the garage door to create enough room to get to the driver’s side.
Other problems caused by the close quarters include lack of storage space (and, therefore, emergency equipment), maintenance and repairs have to occur outside (and offsite during winter), an inadequate meeting room to seat the station’s 24 firefighters and EMTs (prohibiting the station from hosting training sessions with nearby communities without moving the trucks outside), and limited off-street parking (blocking local businesses).
“We’ve got good equipment, but [the current station’s] hampering our ability to do things,” stated Meyers.
“It’s hampering our ability to grow,” added Erickson.
The proposed facility
If the referendum passes, the new 14,620 sq. ft. station will be located at 7th Street and Hwy. 12 property already purchased by the City of Cokato, the Cokato Fire Department, and the Cokato Ambulance Department.
During the May Cokato City council meeting, it was questioned whether the proposed plan would be “too big” for Cokato’s needs.
Erickson informed the council that he did not share that concern, emphasizing that the design would help meet immediate, as well as future needs of the area for the next 50 years.
Erickson later explained that “the building itself is set up for our needs. It’s not a Taj Mahal. It’s not a big fancy building. It’s for the needs of the fire department and the ambulance.”
The design is set to provide space if Cokato ever needed a ladder truck or another tanker in the future, or even another ambulance.
Due to be replaced soon, Cokato’s ambulance would need to be traded in “for nothing” in order to make room for a new truck since there is no space to house another one at the station.
Erickson stated, however, that rather than giving it up “the ambulance service would be better off keeping that ambulance so that if one needs service or is out for getting tires on, or one is on call, they have an extra ambulance [to respond].” Presently, the fire trucks are used as ambulance backup.
Since its trucks are on a 20-year rotation, the fire department is also needing to replace its 1997 tanker, which could be retired to shuttling water to and from sites as other departments such as Annandale, South Haven, and Waverly are already doing except that Cokato has no place to store it.
“If we have a bigger building we could possibly have more equipment, that gives us a better [Insurance Services Office] rating. That goes back to your homeowners’ insurance, so you’d possibly get a reduction on your homeowners’ insurance the better equipped your fire department is,” Meyers commented.
One feature on the proposal that has residents asking questions is the necessity of a fitness room within the new station.
“I’d like to remind people that the number-one killer of volunteer firefighters is heart attacks,” responded Meyers. “It’s not fighting fires, it’s going to a fire or coming back.”
Presently, there is no place for volunteers to exercise within the community without paying a fee from their own pocket, which often discourages them from joining an exercise class or facility. By providing a location within the station, however, Meyers said volunteers will now have that opportunity, which can help keep them safe.
How will it affect taxes?
The proposed fire station is estimated to cost a total of $2.87 million. Residential and commerical/industrial property taxes would be increased annually as follows:
Residential property value rate of increase:
• $100,000 $37
• $150,000 $ 65
• $200,000 $93
Commercial/industrial value rate of increase:
• $250,000 $219
• $500,000 $477
While the fire and ambulance departments know the estimate is “a lot of money,” Erickson said that they worked quite hard to cut the cost down to that amount.
“There’s a lot of this stuff we’ve held back on,” he said, explaining that the facility would not come furnished and the parking lot would only be partially paved “just to save costs.” The departments will be using their own funds to help meet those additional needs.
“We also looked into different options to save money by keeping the ambulance at [the] current location,” stated volunteer firefighter Janell Martinson. “But it was not going to be cost-effective, as we need to have sleeping quarters for our EMTs who live outside the city. The current station will [then] be utilized as storage for the city, because right now, they rent storage for various things costing us money monthly, as does rental of an apartment for the ambulance.”
Meyers added that if the proposed station does not pass, the cost of building one in the future will not go down, but will “always go up.”
For more information, residents are invited to attend a pancake breakfast at the existing fire and ambulance Saturday, Oct. 15. They will be able to meet Cokato’s fire and ambulance personnel and view the station’s condition before casting their vote.