Loretto, Hamel Fire Departments ask for more time to consolidate

Maintain HFD identity is at stake

Should Medina require the Loretto and Hamel Fire Departments to have “a shotgun wedding” or should the merger/consolidation process take longer? What would a merger/consolidation look like? Would the two departments be one entity or separate entities acting as one?

Loretto Fire Chief Jeff Leuer and Hamel Acting Fire Chief Neil Wolfe joined the Medina City Council in wrestling with these questions at the Tuesday, April 16 council meeting. Both Leuer and Wolfe said the LFD and HFD have been working towards an administrative/functional merger with assistance from Emergency Services Consultants (ESCI) — a process that ESCI said would take three to five years.

But an April 2 City Council decision has thrown the fire departments and their consultant into confusion, the two fire chiefs said. The City Council told the three parties that it expected a consolidation/merger to be completed by Oct. 1 — in short, a shotgun wedding. ESCI now is working towards the LFD absorbing the HFD because this would be the quickest way to implement a merger.

However, the LFD taking over the HFD is a different goal from the original one. With the LFD executing a quick absorption of the Hamel Fire Department, the HFD would lose its identity. Both fire chiefs said they wanted to talk with their memberships and their volunteers would need to be on board with whatever happens.

The question is whether the two fire departments end up acting as one or being one, said Hamel Firefighter Mario Fabrizio.

“At the end of the day it’s all about the people. There’s a pride of ownership that needs to be considered,” he said. “The way it’s done is as important as how it’s done.”

Medina “jumped the gun” on directions to ESCI asking for a consolidation/merger by Oct. 1, Wolfe said. The city did not have the authority to do this because the two fire departments are the entities that are contracting with ESCI. Any direction to ESCI should come from them.

The LFD and HFD are independent volunteer organizations contracting with cities for fire protection and emergency services. Loretto Fire Chief Leuer said he has to make four cities happy in addition to Medina. In contrast, the HFD has only one client, Medina, now that the city of Corcoran has decided not to renew its contract with the HFD. One reason for Corcoran’s decision was that the HFD was not moving towards a consolidation/merger with the LFD as quickly as the city wanted.

After the Corcoran decision, long-time Hamel Fire Chief Brandon Guest resigned his position and decided to continue simply as a Hamel firefighter. As he resigned, he said that working towards a consolidation/merger was taking an increasing amount of his time. He needed to focus more time on his full-time job rather than his part-time fire chief job.

To replace Guest, the HFD membership elected Wolfe to serve as acting fire chief for three years.

Wolfe said he never agreed to ESCI dissolving the Hamel Fire Department. He did not agree with ESCI’s estimate of the three to five years needed for a consolidation/merger. He thought the HFD and LFD could come up with a more realistic time line.

The new HFD fire chief said he wanted an administrative/functional consolidation of the two fire departments.

He said that in recent years communication was lacking between the city of Medina and the Hamel Fire Department and has “put us in the mud.” Communication is much better now. Now the HFD has leadership from the City Council, Wolfe said.

Loretto Fire Chief Leuer said, “We were headed for a functional consolidation.”

Originally the LFD was “not on board for a merger.”

“We were very clearly following the plan,” Leuer said, when the two fire departments moved forward with ESCI recommendations. The plan was a three to five year process. Now the plan has changed based upon actions of the cities of Corcoran and Medina.

Leuer said he was asking for clear direction as to what the city of Medina wants and he was willing to work with that. He added that ESCI also would ask about what Medina wants.

Wolfe said accountability of the HFD was a big issue for the cities of Corcoran and Medina. “We’ve fixed the accountability problem,” he said. Also, the HFD has improved its performance, including its response time for calls and the number of firefighters responding to calls.

Now the HFD is asking for a reasonable amount of time and expectations for moving forward, Wolfe said. “We need breathing room… Let us come up with something to present to you.”

Acting Mayor Liz Weir asked City Councilors whether they thought the two fire departments should be tied to “a shotgun wedding” or should they go back to the original plan.

City Councilor Jeff Pederson commended the fire chiefs for the work they have done and said the timeline is too tight for a consolidation/merger. Six months would not be a reasonable amount of time. He recommended a year deadline from the time that ESCI comes back with recommendations.

He also said that decisions about the two fire departments would have “huge tax consequences.” He still had not heard cost estimates for the proposed new fire station. And he wondered whether it would make sense for Medina Police Chief Ed Belland to become the city’s public safety director (overseeing both police and fire services).

“We’re running too far ahead,” Pederson said. “We don’t know the cost of a merger.”

He also suggested that Medina talk with Corcoran to see whether it would consider contracting again with the Hamel Fire Department.

City Councilor Melissa Martinson reminded the council that Medina would have to make up for the shortfall in funding the Hamel Fire Department resulting from Corcoran not renewing its contract. She wanted a consolidation/merger to happen quickly enough so that it wouldn’t substantially hurt city finances.

City Councilor John Anderson expressed concern about the pressure the whole process is putting on the Loretto Fire Department. He reminded the council that needs of two fire departments must be considered.

Acting Mayor Weir recommended going back to the original plan under which the two fire departments would be separate entities acting as one. The HFD’s accountability to Medina has been “weak in the past,” but now the department is “functioning well.” She worried about a consolidation/merger taking five years.

“I am impressed by what I see going on in Hamel,” Weir said. She wanted Medina to give “a much improved (HFD) leadership a chance.”

Weir recommended that the two fire departments aim for an administrative/functional consolidation rather than having one department take over the other. Medina could assess progress over six-month time periods to provide for accountability of the fire departments to the city.

The City Council followed her recommendation and directed the LFD, HFD and ESCI to move towards those goals.