WINDCREST — The city is transitioning to a combination of paid staff and volunteers for its Fire Department and Emergency Medical Services, including adding six payroll positions.
City Council voted 4-1 on Feb. 24 to approve the first reading of an ordinance adding the paid jobs for $231,000.
The money is coming out of the municipality’s general-operating fund, and the amount applies for the remainder of fiscal year 2020, which ends Sept. 30.
Windcrest’s volunteer fire service was established in 1970; hiring salaried firefighters has been discussed in previous years.
The council’s action, according to many city leaders, would make sure personnel are staffing the station around the clock.
While the landlocked community’s 5,000-plus population hasn’t expanded much, business areas have grown along Interstate 35 and its southern border street, Eisenhauer Road.
“All we’re trying to do is establish a full-time Fire Department where there’s two people on duty every hour of the day and supplement that with the volunteers,” Councilman Wes Manning said. “It’s 2020, we’ve got to look at this stuff and get over (to an emergency) quickly and we can do that with a paid and volunteer Fire Department.”
Manning also said he’s talked to many of the city’s volunteer firefighters and wants them to know they are valued by the town.
Fire Chief Daniel Kramer said the new compensated posts are being advertised, but current certified volunteers get first crack at those spots.
By late February, Kramer noted 12 had qualified for further evaluation. All certified applicants were due to undergo written and physical-endurance tests and interviews.
Echoing Manning’s sentiment, Councilwoman Joan Pedrotti said maintaining paid personnel increases confidence firefighters will always be around to answer an emergency, including commercial parts of south Windcrest.
“We should give support to corporate citizens that they deserve,” she added. “They pay taxes and they bring in sales taxes. We have a duty to protect them like every homeowner.”
Councilman Greg Turner said he’s confident this was the proper action, and the volunteers wouldn’t disappear.
“We have to move forward with our fiduciary responsibility of protecting lives and property in the city of Windcrest,” he added.
Not everyone was pleased by council’s decision. Councilman Frank Archuleta, who cast the lone dissenting vote, said he felt the issue hadn’t received a certain level of transparency.
Mayor Dan Reese, an Air Force veteran and a former fire chief, responded the subject was broached in past open meetings and obtaining paid professional firefighter positions has long been on the Fire Department’s wish list.
“I do believe we will have a very vibrant volunteer Fire Department with career (firefighters),” Reese added. He also called Kramer the right person to lead the agency’s transition.
Another critic, former Councilwoman Pam Dodson, cited a perceived lack of information about adding paid firefighters to the city’s payroll, as well as the town’s move to pay two police-officer positions from the local Crime Control and Prevention District’s fund, and not the general fund.
Dodson said many residents feel introducing paid firefighters — and creating a new utility clerk position — would eventually lead to higher property taxes.
She also referenced the projects resulting from the road-improvement bond issue voters approved in 2019.
“Take into account the impact that your action will have on all of (the residents),” Dodson said.
In addition, she’s concerned any failure by the city to maintain a paid Fire Department could jeopardize its ability to continue recruiting volunteers.
Municipal Finance Officer Don Hakala said the recent city-staff maneuvers wouldn’t prompt a tax increase. Reese added the city has a 28 percent reserve fund and is doing well with rising sales-tax revenue.