Fire District Chief First Heard of Mills Fire Proposal From Media
As contract negotiations between the Mills firefighters union and town officials broke down, the union proposed a meeting with Mayor Seth Coleman to find a compromise.
On the day of the meeting, Mills Professional Fire Fighters Association representatives showed up. Five minutes went by. Then 10.
"We were informed that they had forgotten about meeting and they'd have to notify us of a schedule change," Mills Professional Fire Fighters Representative Tyler Houser said. "That notification came in the form of a letter of layoff and department closure."
Earlier this month, the union received a letter from the town stating contract negotiations were over, Houser said.
As of May 23, 38 days remain until the town's nine professional firefighters hang up their bunker gear in Mills if a solution isn't reached.
And, after a town council meeting in Mills on Wednesday, all that is certain with fire services in the town of 4,000 that the future is in limbo.
Coleman said the decision to lay off the town's full-time fire department came amid budget woes. Continuing to pay the department would put the town over-budget.
Council members passed a proposed budget on first reading Wednesday. It reflects the town spending just shy of $1 million to fund the fire department and a town that has over-budgeted by the same amount.
Mills' projected revenue for the next year is also about $1 million short of what it was this year. That includes an allocation for the fire department.
Houser said there's more to the impending layoffs than budget constraints.
Negotiations between the union and town were moving along amicably, Houser said. Union members asked for yearly cancer screenings, which are routine for firefighters in other departments. The town agreed.
It wasn't until a hangup on changing shift structures that negotiations went south. The town requested firefighters move away from their current 48-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts. Houser said union representatives gave a presentation explaining why that would cost the town more money, but town officials "didn't like what they heard."
Then word of the layoffs came.
During Wednesday's meeting, Coleman said the town is considering contracting with the Natrona County Fire District to provide firefighting services in Mills. The town sent a letter to the district proposing that Mills provide the fire district $425,000 per year to fund salaries and man the Mills fire station. Currently, the fire district has 18 full-time employees.
Coleman said the Mills Fire Department and Natrona County Fire Protection District respond to 60% of each other's calls.
The fire district has until Tuesday to accept or decline Mills' request, which Natrona County Fire District Interim Chief Brian Oliver said was only received Wednesday.
Oliver said the district board directed his department to stay out of the dispute between the Mills firefighters' union and town. The fire district wasn't formally approached by Mills officials about the situation until last week and they learned that Mills was considering them as an agency to absorb fire calls through media reports.
"We hope the union and town can come to an agreement and this all goes away," Oliver said.
While the Natrona County Fire Protection District will do everything it can to ensure the safety of Mills residents, it's not a slam dunk, Oliver said — and it's only going to become more difficult as the wildland fire season looms.
"We're not in a position to look Mills residents in the eye and say you're covered," Oliver said. "It's up in the air right now. We're kind of in a holding pattern. We're praying that they can come together."
Oliver added that, if the Town of Mills and the fire district reach an agreement, it would be unrealistic to staff the fire station in Mills. In 2017, the fire district lost five firefighting positions as a result of budget cuts. They're still bouncing back themselves, Oliver said. Staffing the Mills location would mean hiring a minimum of six firefighters.
"This is a hard time to take on another agency," he said.
If Mills and the Natrona County Fire Protection District can't come to an agreement, the second option would be to contract with a private provider, a proposal that a hostile Wednesday night crowd found laughable.
Said Houser: "Myself and eight other firefighters swore an oath to lay down the ultimate sacrifice. Private companies don't share the same belief."
Houser added that the Mills Fire Department came in under budget last year. Firefighters have offered to take on additional responsibilities including snow removal.
Several residents rose to address the Mills council Wednesday night and all of them expressed displeasure over the potential closure of the fire department.
But Coleman said numerous times that the physical fire department building in Mills would still be staffed, though he did not offer specifics. He said the town is looking for suitors to provide privatized firefighting services, though it's unclear if the town has found anyone.
As public comment went on, attendees began passing around a petition to recall Coleman. It's unclear if it will get the necessary signatures to initiate a recall process.
Council member Ronald Wales told attendees that even if the entire council were to be voted out, they'd still be left with the problem of funding a fire department.
Other council members encouraged the public to attend public meetings, including budget hearings and work sessions — but meeting attendees said Wednesday night was their chance to be heard.
No public notice to lay off the Mills Fire Department was given.