It will now take longer for East County Fire and Rescue crews to reach calls that come in from the Bear Prairie area.
On Jan. 19 the ECFR Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a plan to close Station 96 and sell the 5-acre property that is the site of a 2,949 square foot house built in 1983.
The parcel was purchased by ECFR for $525,000 in 2008 to house a firefighter and fire equipment to serve the northeast corner of the fire district.
For the past seven years volunteer Frank Billington, a certified firefighter and first responder, has lived there with his wife and five of their children. They resided in the home rent-free, in exchange for his emergency response services and upkeep of the property. Billington paid for utilities. A squad vehicle equipped with a pump, water and first aid gear, was kept at that station.
Interim Chief Al Gillespie said the decision to sell the property was based in large part on the district’s financial circumstances.
The district’s debt includes a limited tax general obligation bond with a pay-off balance of $747,307, which cannot be paid down beyond the normal payments until 2022.
In addition, Gillespie said, ECFR owes $1.89 million on a second limited tax general obligation bond and $134,000 that was borrowed so that the district could purchase radios. Both of these obligations can be paid down or off to reduce or eliminate interest payments.
“[The commissioners] looked at it and decided that financially it would be better to close that station, put it up for sale and put that money toward some debt,” he said.
According to Gillespie, in 2015 Billington responded to 71 calls out of Station 96, which included dispatch to other areas of the district also covered by full-time staff. Twenty-three of those calls were specific to the Bear Prairie area.
Per Billington’s contract with ECFR, he needed to vacate the house by Feb. 20 — 30 days from the time the commission approved the closure. That was Saturday, and Gillespie said he plans to do a walk through on Wednesday. The next step will be to make any needed repairs, have a fair market evaluation conducted, then put it on the market in the spring.
According to Gillespie, while the value of the house dipped sharply during the recession it is now back up to $475,000 to $490,000.
With Station 96 now closed, calls from the Bear Prairie area are being handled by crews at Mount Norway Station 94, about four miles away. It is staffed 24-hours a day.
Describing the Bear Prairie area as “sparsely populated,” Gillespie said living without close access to a fire station is a risk rural residents take.
“Everybody would love to have a fire house next to them, unless the sirens are going off,” he said. “The fire department has responsibility for the full district. We try to balance out our responsibilities across the district.”
On Monday, Commissioner Mike Berg said the decision to sell the station was evaluated prior to the vote on Jan. 19.
“We chose to go in that direction because of the amount of calls that station has, and the amount of money you and I are subsidizing to operate that station,” he said.
“It wasn’t just a board decision,” Berg added. “It was a department decision that this was the best way we should go. It wasn’t made overnight. There was a lot of discussion. We are just trying to figure out how to pay off the debt.”
ECFR now operates five fire stations, two of them staffed 24-hours a day. Gillespie said there are currently no plans to sell any of the district’s other properties.