Now that we know Northfield’s firefighters aren’t really volunteers, more transparency is needed on their fundraising activities

Northfield MN firefighters, members of the Northfield Fire Relief AssociationIt should now be clear to the citizens of Northfield (see this blog post and discussion thread with 201 comments) that Northfield’s firefighters, part-time employees and members of the Northfield Fire Relief Association, aren’t really volunteers in the sense that most people use that term.

Yes, state statute 299N.03, subdivision 7 uses the term ‘volunteer’  to define those firefighters who are paid on an on-call basis as well as those who aren’t paid.  But that’s immaterial.

Northfield’s firefighters get paid $21.63/hour for fire calls and $16.17/hour for training activities (1st Monday of the month paid by the City of Northfield; 3rd Monday of the month paid by the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District).

And if they stay on the job for 20 years, they get a lump sum pension payment of $150,000.  That’s tied for the best lump sum deal in the state of MN.  A few firefighters are nearing 40 years of service and they’ll get $300,000+ when they retire.  (Note: these pension funds are not funded solely by the City of Northfield/taxpayers. State aid/investment returns typically exceed the municipal contribution. See my blog post criticizing the Northfield News for their yet-to-be-corrected error on this.)

It’s true that those firefighters who are also members of the Rescue Squad (is that everyone?) are not paid for going on rescue calls (car accidents, medical problems, etc) nor for rescue-related training (2nd Monday of the month). But I think of these uncompensated hours, as well as the community activities by many firefighters (e.g., speaking to 3rd grade classrooms about fire prevention) as part of ‘the deal:’ stick with this part-time, hourly-pay job that requires a few extra hours per month on your own time and you get a nice nest egg (lump sum pension payment) after 20 years.  Plus, as I’ve written before, it’s an interesting and challenging job in which they get to make a real difference in people’s lives, contribute measurably in the community’s quality of life, and earn our respect for doing so.

Everyone I’ve talked to is surprised that there’s this level of financial compensation for firefighters they considered to be 100% volunteer.  But I’m quick to stress to them that I think this is a good deal for the Northfield community. We get a high quality firefighting force with little turnover for a fraction of the cost of full-time firefighters.

Fundraising by the Northfield Fire Relief Association and the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District (dinners, dances, pull tabs, bingo, duck race, etc.) is a problem. I’ve assumed (as have most of the citizens I’ve talked to) that fundraising money goes towards firefighting equipment or other firefighting-related expenses.  It turns out, that’s not the case.

Northfield Fire Relief Association check register 2010 Northfield firefighters check register 2011 Northfield Fire Relief Association tax form 2010
See the Northfield Fire Relief Association check registers for 2010 and for 2011. See their 2010 tax statement.  While there doesn’t seem to be to be anything inappropriate anything that would indicate a misappropriation of funds that I can tell (how would I know!), it seems that, for the most part, the money raised benefits the firefighters, not firefighting.

The Grand Event Center For example, in attendance at the annual Firefighters’ banquet (not the benefit dance) at The Grand Event Center are the firefighters and their wives/girlfriends and some representatives of the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District. City leaders (mayor, police chief, city administrator) are typically invited. The steak/lobster dinner and open bar the entire night costs a few (several?) thousand dollars.

Fundraising of various kinds pays for this, of course, not tax dollars. I might be supportive of a lavish affair like this if the firefighters were 100% volunteers. But they’re not. They’re well-compensated. And for them to conduct fundraising activities that benefit themselves as if they were volunteers seems more than a little disingenuous to me.

The gambling (pull tabs) revenue is significant ($100,000+) but the cost of goods sold and various expenses were such that gambling generated no profit in 2010.  Is that typical? I don’t know but if it is, why do it?  The purpose of charitable gambling is to generate a profit for the charity’s mission.  Maybe I’m missing it but I don’t see evidence of mission-related expenses.

I think the Northfield Fire Relief Association should quit marketing itself as the Northfield Volunteer Fire Department.  And any public fundraising activities should be pitched as directly benefiting a specific cause, activity, or piece of equipment.  If they want to have an all-expenses paid annual banquet/bash, fine, but make sure donors know that that’s what their contributions are paying for.

An easy first step towards more transparency would be for both the Northfield Fire Relief Association and the Northfield Rural Fire Protection District to each have separate websites where Articles of Incorporation, by-laws, mission, and members are all posted and where financial statements, meeting minutes, etc. are regularly updated.  Nearly every Northfield area non-profit and membership association of any size has a website and most have blogs. Why not these two? They both play an important role in our community and public awareness/accountability is now needed.  They both have the financial resources to pay for it.

22 comments to  (Including 5 Discussion Threads) Now that we know Northfield’s firefighters aren’t really volunteers, more transparency is needed on their fundraising activities

  • 1
    kiffi summa says:

    Griff: you said: “Yes, state statute 299N.03, subdivision 7 uses the term ‘volunteer’ to define those firefighters who are paid on an on-call basis as well as those who aren’t paid. But that’s immaterial.”

    How can you say the law… the state statute that defines the status, is “immaterial” ?

    Would you say the law that sets the wearing of seatbelts is “immaterial”? or that sets speed limits for state highways?

    If you think a law/state statute is “immaterial”, I believe in the sense you are interpreting it, you’re saying it is ‘beside the point’.

    You can certainly have that POV, but it is also certainly “immaterial” that you do hold that opinion.

    As to the fundraising activities of the firefighting groups, If you find something concrete to report, then do so… stated clearly and with corroboration, and with responsive comment from the group you are ‘accusing’, or else you’re just ‘stirring the pot’… (you yourself say it doesn’t seem like there’s “anything inappropriate” …
    so then it looks like you just want to be ‘right’,
    and then, IMO, it looks just like the NFNews style of ‘investigation’.

    • 1.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Kiffi, the use of the term ‘volunteer’ in state statute is steeped in the legacy of rural firefighters being all volunteers. Sure, it’s still legal for Northfield’s firefighters to use the word but its disingenuous and hurting their reputation.

      Our society has a pretty darn clear understanding of what it means to be volunteer. The existence of an arcane definition of the term in state statute is immaterial to the point I’m making in this blog post.

      • 1.1.1
        kiffi summa says:

        Sorry to continue to disagree, Griff… there are many examples of arcane language (especially by today’s colloquial standards) in MN. state statutes and that does not mean that language ceases to be legally valid. It’s still the law.

        On a further point, I have not heard anyone say they feel the firefighters’ reputations are being hurt by the use of the word “volunteer”.. but then we speak with different groups of people. Maybe your acquaintances all feel as negatively about the firefighters as you seem to, but I have honestly never heard them criticized n the 17/18 years I’ve been here.
        So we are stuck on a difference of opinion.

    • 1.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Kiffi, I did include something very concrete. I object to public fundraising activities that have been marketed as “support for our volunteers” to be used to pay for an annual steak/lobster/open bar banquet for part-time employees and their partners. I guess that is inappropriate.

      When I wrote “While there doesn’t seem to be to be anything inappropriate that I can tell…” I was thinking of ‘misappropriation of funds.’

      So I’ve stricken that phrase and replaced it.

      • 1.2.1
        kiffi summa says:

        I also don’t get what you object to in the firefighters raising money to fund a party for themselves; again it seems to be with reference to the word ‘volunteer’, but if people wish to give $$ to the firefighters for whatever reason, aren’t they free to do so?

        Maybe people appreciate their dedication to being on call 24/7, and being so effective that we receive a favorable fire insurance rate … but I don’t see a justifiable basis for your complaint against the firefighters use of dollars that are freely given to them.

      • 1.2.2
        Griff Wigley says:

        Kiffi,

        Let’s say I’m going to cross-country bike trip to raise money for cancer. People donate to the cause but at the end of the trip, all the money donated goes towards paying for my expenses, eg, food, camping, bike repairs and maybe some needed R&R in Las Vegas.

        So I’ve gotten a great trip out of the deal at no cost to me but no money went for the cause/mission.

        I think donors would be upset.

        It’s an imperfect example but my point is, I don’t think most people are aware that their fundraising money goes for, in this case, a lavish night at The Grand for part-time employees who are well-compensated already.

      • 1.2.3
        kiffi summa says:

        I simply cannot believe that you make that comparison of a cross country bike trip with charity donations which are then ‘stolen’ for your personal use … to an event funded by charitable donations to a group that asks for contributions and then gets them, and uses those unrestricted gifts for whatever!

        It’s not even apples and oranges… it’s worms and oranges!

  • 2
    Rob Harrison says:

    Hi Griff!

    I noticed a lack of comments from the people in the fire department. Was there a reason for that? As I remember, we discussed regularly the fund raising efforts, and I thought at one time we cancelled the duck race. But you know how memories are. I do know though that the way we raised money and how we spent it was a topic of discussion. I also recall we helped out some families at year end as well.

    For some perspective: in the volunteer district I serve in, we put in over 25,000 hours last year. That averages out to almost 69 volunteer hours a day, and for some of us more, for some less. We don’t come close to Northfield numbers, and our state requires a certain amount of reparation for mileage. For having my pager on 24/7 most of the year, the amount I “earned” in a year equated to about a quarter an hour. Like you said, for what you pay as opposed to what you get, that’s well spent money.

    It blows my mind they don’t have a web site! I look occasionally to say hi, but to no avail.

    Hope all is well with you, in what seems like competition for the News?

    Rob Harrison

  • 3
    Jane Moline says:

    Griff: Why your sick and twisted attack on a group that risks life and limb for everyone in their service area--even you! The number or hours they put in probably makes their compensation about 1.25 per hour—talk to anyone familiar with the fire department and what they do, and you will maybe understand what a volunteer does--not taking a fun, leisurely bicycle vacation and calling it a fund raiser!
    Also--everyone you spoke to is not surprised at the (meager) compensation of firefighters--you spoke to me and I told you you were comding from a different planet to your face--those of us who have lived in out-state Minnesota all of our lives know how volunteer fire departments work and we like it that way.

    • 3.1
      Griff Wigley says:

      Jane, why not assume that I care just as much as you about Northfield and the Firefighters? Why not just argue with me straight instead of disparaging my efforts as a “sick and twisted attack” and “from a different planet”? It’s insulting. I don’t treat you that way when I disagree with you. Don’t treat me that way.

  • 4
    Sean Stevens says:

    Ignorance is not an excuse:

    Just because people are uninformed on the nature of a volunteer fire department, and the way they are compensated does not make calling them a volunteer fire department misleading.

    This is the way it is done here in MN (I can’t speak for other states)

    I served on a “volunteer” fire department in the metro area for a number of years, and I can attest to the number of hours these people put into the job. The family outings that get cancelled, the dinner plans with your friends and family that get interrupted, the late night calls that have you feeling like a zombie the next day, when you have to go to your “real job” This is the life of a true volunteer (on call) fire fighter.

    Some cities compensate more than Northfield FD, and some less. Regardless of the compensation, it is cheaper then a full time department, end of story. They also have to keep up with the growth of the city, firefighters and equipment, or the cities protection class rating will go up. This would cause all of the residents homeowners insurance to increase. So keeping the same firefighters on the force, is an advantage to everyone. The training it takes to become proficient at the job is extensive, and if you had a lot of turnover, then it would cost even more money and you would have less experienced people on the force.

    I just wanted to give you another persons take on the situation (who has been there) since it seems that none of the firefighters are commenting on this post.

  • 5
    Barbara Gentling says:

    This is getting nasty. I am astonished at the pay for firefighters…$150,000 lump sum after 20 years; $300,000 after 40 years. And, to use the term “volunteer” when they are actually paid $17 to $21+ per hour of training or call. And, my “donation” is not used for equipment or updating--but a boozey lobster & steak dinner.

    Talk about a need for transparency. How did this ever “become the agreement”? I don’t doubt that firefighters do an excellent job protecting Northfield property…but this level of pay is way over the limit. No wonder my property taxes are so astronomical.

    • 5.1
      Rob Harrison says:

      Might I suggest Barbara that you volunteer for a couple years and see if that level of money is justified. Here’s the cushy deal you get to live with:

      A pager on your hip 24/7/365 that goes off at all hours of the day and night. All holidays included. When that pager goes off, you’ll notice that people around you jump, yet you don’t. Ask why. And when that pager goes off, is it an invite to a birthday party? A concert at St. Olaf? No, it isn’t. The majority of the times it isn’t even to protect property. It’s to respond to a young man who shot himself in the head. Or a Tai Chi instructor who hung herself. Car accidents that crush heads. Heart attacks, miscarriages. 24/7/365, that’s the majority of what volunteer firefighters live with. They are exposed to blood, smoke, flame on the occasions they are. They get invited to risk their lives to help with the most traumatic stuff civilians experience. I suggest you look up PTSD.

      And a whopping lump sum of $300G!? Taken over 10 years life expectancy after retirement (way beyond the normal), that equates to about $30G a year. Wow. I’m sure in Northfield today that means living like a King. And that’s only for those who have been there 40 years. Consider the age of the staff there and do some better computing of what it will actually cost.

      How much is your life worth to you? Your property? I for one am dismayed at such a shallow understanding of the public service that emergency responders provide to the public, compared to the cost of your property taxes. And I noticed a complete lack of an alternative solution. I have to think you’re better than just a complainer.

    • 5.2
      Griff Wigley says:

      Hey Barbara, thanks for chiming in.

      I’ve argued that we taxpayers are actually getting a good deal here. I think the paid/on-call compensation and the lump sum pensions are a MUCH better way to go--and more cost-effective-- than a few full time firefighters or even a hybrid.

      So while changes are needed, I don’t think compensation is one of them.

    • 5.3
      Sean Stevens says:

      As citizens were are all capable of going to the city hall meetings, listening and voicing our opinions. If we do not like what we hear, then we can run, or try and get new people elected to office. You are more then welcome to go to the city and ask for a full time fire department, and then we can see how astronomical out taxes would really be.

      Griff you are correct we as tax payers are getting a good deal. A full time firefighter gets a pension, benefits, and a pretty decent salary.($80K plus) 20 years of running into buildings that everyone else is running out of for $150,000 in pension plus some money for calls. Doesn’t seem so bad especially since there is no guarantee they do not get badly injured or worse.

    • 5.4
      kiffi summa says:

      Barbara: I think there are probably a whole bunch of misconceptions that are directing your comment:

      The legal nomenclature for a paid-on call fireman is a “volunteer” because they are not on a salaried contract with regular hours, etc. The MN statutes define their jobs as volunteer; that’s the law.

      Being paid $17-21 every time you answer the call, any time of day or night, is not much … I would say is not anything considering you may lose your lif… or have to watch someone else lose theirs.

      The lump sum payment after 20 or more years, may seem too much to you, but it is a state mandated pension structure, of which NF pays very little…

      AND this has nothing to do with the amount of property tax you pay…

      HOWEVER the skilled and dedicated service we get from our volunteer firefighters is responsible for the low fire insurance rates we pay.

      Hopes this helps you to understand…

  • 6
    Griff Wigley says:

    Nfld News coverage of last night’s Council Work Session and today’s scheduled meeting with the townships & Dundas: Northfield council to query town leaders on fire agreement

    The council on Tuesday agreed to ask their counterparts in the townships and Dundas to consider options for the agreement now being revised. They include a contract for services with the city and one that would allow greater input, but cost more…

    Twice during Tuesday’s meeting, council members asked Rural Fire Association Board representatives about how they envision the structure of the agreement, each time failing to get a direct answer.

    Jerry Anderson, administrator of the Rural Fire Association which represents the eight townships in the rural fire district as well as the cities of Dundas and Dennison, stressed that rural residents value equipment and personnel, but sidestepped the mayor’s question on the the type of agreement he prefers.

    • 6.1
      kiffi summa says:

      and …the city never addressed the fact that they simply do not have the equipment budget to buy their own equipment which would equal the Rural Fire’s truck which NF uses as the first response to any fire, inside or outside of NF.

      Rural Fire has been able to purchase for cash (the townships pay Rural Fire for protection) the truck we use first , and they maintain it; the city houses it. Rural Fire prefers to spend their dollars first and foremost on the equipment they feel best protects those they are responsible to. The City has a larger concern than they for the visual aspects of any municipal building; indeed the Administrator said last night that the Rural Fire would be content to house equipment in a ‘tin shed”.

      What do you, as residents who wish to protect your property, and have the good fire insurance rates we have because of the dept’s rating … what do you value most highly? The newer, well maintained equipment that the Rural Fire Assn. wishes to emphasize ? or a possibly more aesthetically pleasing building to house the necessary equipment ?

      Maybe we need a straw poll, Griff…
      Given available budgets, and your tax bill… what’s your priority: Equipment or building ???

  • 7
    Griff Wigley says:

    See LWV Observer Jane McWilliams’ report on Tuesday’s Council Work Session. Most it involves fire issues.

  • 8
    Griff Wigley says:

    Has there been any media reporting on the intergovernmental meeting in Bridgewater Township that was held on April 25 re: the Rural Fire Protection District and the City of Northfield?

  • 9
    Griff Wigley says:

    I’m more than a little clueless about investments but I noticed on page 14 in the April 24 Council packet that the Fire Relief Association has 85% of its pension portfolio in stocks. Isn’t that a bit risky/aggressive for a pension fund? And if that turns out to be a lousy strategy for a given year, doesn’t the City of Northfield has to make up for it?

    City Finance director Kathleen McBride wrote:

    The FRA has its assets invested through the State Board of Investments. The investments footnote on page 27 details the asset allocation. Investment choices through SBI are limited to a handful of funds. The Common Stock Fund is designed to replicate the return produced by the Russell 3000 index and is comprised of domestic stocks entirely. The Bond Fund is comprised entirely in fixed income securities – primarily in high quality government and corporate bonds and mortgage securities. The Growth Fund is composed almost exclusively of stocks of U.S. companies with its objective to generate high returns from capital appreciation. The Income Fund is comprised of 60% common stocks, 35% bonds and 5% cash equivalents.

    The goal is to earn a return from both capital appreciation and current yield (dividends and interest). At 12/31/11 the overall asset allocation was 85.2% equities and 14.8% bonds. A summary investment report as of March 31, 2012 is also included with this memo – attachment 3.

    By contrast, PERA’s asset allocation’s long-term policy target is as follows:

    * Domestic Stocks 45%

    * International Stocks 15%

    * Bonds 18%

    * Alternative Assets* 20%

    * Cash 2%

    • 9.1
      kiffi summa says:

      Come on, Griff… you say you’re “more than a little clueless about about investments” but you “just happened to notice”… and from what you said, were reading analytically, etc etc…

      Once again you’re attacking the firefighters without looking at the big picture… Who is it that has been able to save the money to buy the newest equipment that NF sends out first on every call?
      Well, I think you know the answer to that one… it’s the Rural Fire Assn.

      I believe the city does not have, and could not at this point ‘gather’, the dollars needed to buy a new piece of fire equipment; as a matter of fact, I seem to remember the council voting several years ago to purchase a new hook/ladder truck ( thinking the colleges would pay most of its cost) but I do not think it has ever been ordered, and they take many months if not a couple of years to build to specs.

      But you are correct that the city would have to pay an increased amount toward the pension fund in a bad investment year, so maybe you can find in that report how often the city has had to supplement the pension fund with a higher than ‘acceptable’ amount… and then in those same bad investment years have they also had to supplement the city’s own pension fund accordingly?

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