Northfield News story on firefighters’ pension is misleading

Northfield Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson; Griff Wigley March 13 Nfld News:  Northfield’s firefighter wages, pensions among highest in state DSC08083 Northfield Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson; Griff Wigley
Northfield Assistant Fire Chief Tom Nelson stopped by my corner office at GBM yesterday. We mostly argued, hence the scowls in the left photo. (Feel free to sort through the 180+ comments to my blog post to find my criticisms of the Northfield Fire Department. More to come?)

But one thing we did agree on (hence the smiles in the right photo) was that the two versions of the Northfield News stories about the firefighters’ pension contained some misleading information. In the March 6 version, Northfield firefighters: paid or volunteers?, reporter Suzy Rook wrote:

According to a state auditor’s report for 2009, the city’s firefighters, who also serve the Northfield Rural Fire District, have $7,500 apiece placed in the fund annually;

In the sidebar:

$7,500 — Northfield’s annual pension contribution per firefighter

After the March 6 story appeared, Tom’s email to me and Suzy included this:

Northfield Fire Relief is presently at $7500/yr of service.  This is not to be confused with “The City pays each member $7500/year” as was stated in the Northfield News e-edition last week.  The impact on the annual budget is only the Municipal Contribution amount.  For this year, the impact is slightly more than $900/fire fighter.

Likewise, in the comment thread attached to the March 6 story, firefighter Aramis Wells argued with her about this issue.  But to no avail, as this week’s March 13 version, Northfield’s firefighter wages, pensions among highest in state, contained the same text and sidebar.

My take

Individual firefighter pension obligations DO NOT cost the City of Northfield/taxpayers $7,500/year, as the Northfield News’ stories indicate.

Rather, if they stay on the job for 20 years or more (and past the age of 50), the pension fund pays them $7,500 per year of service. Big difference.

The amount in the fund fluctuates with the stock market and so the City’s annual contribution to the fund fluctuates.  Back in 2008, the City contributed nearly $100,000 to the fund. In 2009 it was half that. This year, Tom says it’ll be about $29,000.

I think the City of Northfield and we citizens get a good deal with this arrangement because the pension encourages firefighters to stay on the job.  Lack of turnover is generally a good thing when it comes to firefighting and I think we’re better served by having so many firefighters with so many years of experience.

But we need not worry too much that the current turmoil with the City and the Northfield Fire Department will cause many firefighters to quit.  Fire Chief Gerry Franek’s attorney David Hvistendahl, Northfield Area Rural Fire District administrator Jerry Anderson and others are wrong to, um, fan these flames.


The firefighters get a good deal, too. If they stick with it for 20 years, they get a decent lump sum payout of $150,000. A few are going get twice that as they been on the job for nearly 40 years. Plus, they have an interesting and challenging part-time 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. Not many $21/hr part-time jobs offer all this.

I’m glad the Northfield News did the story because it has helped raise awareness of the issue.  But I think they owe it to the firefighters and to the citizens to run a correction.


  1. Phil Poyner said:

    “But I think they owe it to the firefighters and to the citizens to run a correction.”

    I agree.

    March 16, 2012
  2. kiffi summa said:

    I have to ask it here again: Why does the NFNews persist in always taking the side of whatever they perceive the power structure to be rather than independently doing thorough research and presenting stories that are factual? Why didn’t they make the correction?

    It’s bad enough that they often get things wrong in their editorials, those are just opinion; but the errors in major stories like this are indicative of a insufficient level of journalistic diligence.

    March 16, 2012
  3. Aramis Wells said:

    That’s a good question Kiffi. I have been telling Suzy this for 10 days and she believes her numbers are correct. Even though the only documentation she has to back it up clearly proves her wrong. All I’m asking is she use the facts.
    Aramis Wells
    aka musketeer78

    March 16, 2012
  4. Aramis Wells said:

    I guess what really gets me looking back at some of the threads I’ve had. I corrected Suzy’s numbers minutes after the original story came out online on the 6th of March. Then after a week of being corrected she still ran the story on print and now the whole town thinks the fire department is raping the city for retirement. She doesn’t understand that after she writes a story like that all 30 of us get questioned on the street why we take so much from the city. It literally takes away from our reputation that we have worked 140 years to get. I am very fortunate for Locally Grown to be able to speak freely regardless of what it may do to my firefighting career with the new leadership format.

    March 16, 2012
  5. Jane Moline said:

    I think the headline the NN ran was atrocious–but I also think the continual harangue from Griff at LG has not helped–but I think the overall problem we should be worried about is that our dedicated, efficient, effective, experienced hard-working fire fighters are afraid to stand up for themselves because they see a risk of retaliation from the city. Why would they think that? What managment missteps have caused this perception on the part of the firefighters?

    March 16, 2012

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