CITY HALL UPDATE // Board-up program burning hole in Fire Departments pocket

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September 22, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
Minneapolis City Council members are poised to end a year-old program that had the Fire Department boarding up vacant buildings and homes.  

Fire Chief Alex Jackson gave the city’s public safety committee a report Sept. 14 saying his department was losing $34,000 a month and staffing one firefighter around the clock on a board-up truck. In total, he said, the program has caused a $282,000 budget shortfall over the past 11 months.

The program, proposed by former City Council member Paul Ostrow, was intended to be a revenue generator for the department and save the jobs of two firefighters.

Council members said it obviously hasn’t worked, and places much of the blame on declining new foreclosures.

“I would ask that … we be released from this and let this work go back to the contractor that was actually making money doing this, because we are not,” Jackson said.

A major factor in the board-up program’s failure is tied to the housing crisis. When it was proposed in 2010, the city was at the end of a foreclosure crisis that had contractors boarding up a slew of vacant homes.

Foreclosures have slowed since their peak in 2008, when the city spent $700,000 in one year to board up homes, said Thomas Deegan, director of housing inspections for the city.

“I don’t know what the [foreclosure] percentages are, but I can tell you they’re significantly down,” Deegan said.

Council President Barb Johnson said the council should eliminate the program and turn it back over to private contractors.

“I think it’s good intention, but I am also glad we’re not too far into this, because it shows we’re having really highly paid people do work that is not necessarily skilled work,” she said. “It just is not cost effective, so we should honor the chief’s request here.”

Jackson said that by releasing the Fire Department from the duties, he would be able to add three full-time firefighters back into his rotation.

The board-up program had the city’s Regulatory Services Department paying the Fire Department for this work, and then Regulatory Services staff would try to collect board-up fees from banks that owned the homes. Recently, the department has recouped about 79 percent of those costs, Deegan said.

Including the truck, supplies and staffing, the Fire Department spent $371,000 on the program over the past 11 months. The Fire Department was only able to bill the city $89,000 for its work.

The elimination of the program will be discussed in the Ways and Means/Budget Committee.

Hayden wins Senate primary

Jeff Hayden won the Sept. 13 DFL Primary for Minnesota Senate District 61, a strong indication that he’ll take over the seat formerly held by Linda Berglin.

Hayden, the state representative from district 61B, collected 1,361 of 2,359 votes, or 58 percent of the total. He will face Republican Bruce A. Lundee, Green Party candidate Farheen Hakeem and Independence Party candidate Matt Brillhart in an Oct. 18 special election.  

District 61 is a heavy DFL area. Hayden collected the party’s endorsement as well the endorsements of several liberal organizations.

Hayden’s strongest DFL challenger, Sadik Warfa, collected 28 percent of the vote, followed by Paulette Will at 7.3 percent, Elsa Batica at 2.6 percent, Kristian Heuer at 2.1 percent and Kyle Wilson at 2 percent.

If Hayden wins the special election, another special election will be needed to fill his vacant house seat.

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.