Calls strain BFD budget

Mark Swenson
Mark Swenson

Washington County’s aging population has sparked a budget blaze for one area volunteer fire department.

With one quarter of 2013 over, the Bayport Fire Department’s call load could out-pace the department’s $400,000 budget, according to BFD spokesman Mark Swenson.

“We’re 30 percent over where we’re at last year. It’s not going to be good,” he said.

The volunteer BFD serves Bayport, Oak Park Heights, Baytown Township and West Lakeland Township. Each community contributes to the fire department’s budget based on number of calls, Swenson said.

“All four communities are on a fair share formula,” he said. Oak Park Heights pays about 62 percent of the BFD budget, about $200,000, he added.

Although the communities the BFD serves are small, Swenson said the Bayport department covers facilities such as Xcel Energy’s King plant, Andersen Corp., the Minnesota Correction Facilities in Bayport and Oak Park Heights and St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Baytown Township.

But Swenson said the majority of the department’s calls are for medical issues at the area’s three major senior citizen facilities — Croixdale in Bayport and Boutwells Landing and Oak Park Senior Living in Oak Park Heights.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve added Croixdale in Bayport and Boutwells Landing has added units and we have Oak Park Senior Living,” he said. “We’ve got an aging population and you’re going to get more medical calls.”

Swenson said many calls are for medical issues typically suffered by the elderly.

“It’s everything from strokes to heart attacks to drug overdoses,” he said.

Of the average of 1,300 calls per year, or three calls per day, about 80 percent are medical runs, Swenson said.

“It’s ungodly high. Lake Elmo (fire department) is at about 500 calls a year,” he said. “We’re getting very comparable to Stillwater.”

Although the rising call volume is mainly for medical issues, it also affects how the two townships develop their budgets.

“It makes it hard for the townships to budget because they have to set their budgets in March,” he said.

The BFD’s call load affects more than the department’s budget, according to Swenson. Burnout among firefighters has been high, with the department at one time down to 18 members, he said. Five new volunteer firefighters recently joined the department, he added.

“We’re doing things well. Everybody’s been understanding about the volunteers,” he said.

But Swenson admits the department faces future personnel issues, especially given the call volume.

“We’ve got some members getting up in age and it’s hard getting up at 2 in the morning,” he said.

Swenson, who is an Oak Park Heights City Councilman besides his fire department duties, updates community officials frequently about the BFD’s call volume and budget. He said the four communities face some tough decisions on addressing the department’s budget issues.

One possible solution is charging for medical calls, Swenson said. The Boutwells Landing planned unit development includes language permitting the department to charge for medical calls to the facility, he noted.

But Swenson admits charging for calls is not likely to occur.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen. It puts a lot on the community,” he said.

Instead, Swenson expects the department will approach its member communities to add more money to the department’s budget.

“I think that’s the only solution,” he said.

Contact Erik Sandin at [email protected]