North St. Paul council snuffs out fire fee — for now

Fuming residents pack council chambers

 

Armed with white-board signs and testimonies, more than 30 North St. Paul residents attended Tuesday night's city council meeting to make sure their requests were fulfilled to have the newly established fee for backyard campfires revoked.

After the new ordinance took effect Dec. 16, council members and city staff received a flurry of complaints.

Based on the feedback, the council unanimously decided to remove the recreational fire permit and fee for now, shelving further discussions until burning season arrives.   

"We've got folks here who aren't happy with us," council member Candy Petersen said. "I think that there's got to be some more thought process on this, and that it can be worked out."

Residents suspicious

The recreational fire law called for a $30 annual permit or a $10 single-use permit, only available for purchase during work hours at City Hall.

Bill Minke, who's lived in North St. Paul for 55 years, played an active role in recruiting concerned residents to attend the Jan. 20 meeting.

In his experience, hosting occasional backyard fires for his kids and their friends in the neighborhood has never been an issue or generated complaints.

"I feel it is [the city] trying to make a few bucks off it," he said in a follow-up interview. "We've been doing it for years. I don't really think we need to change."

Longtime resident Ed Albrecht expressed a similar concern in a later phone interview.

In preparation for the meeting, Albrecht had looked into the profit the city stood to make off annual recreational fire permits. According to his estimates, if half of the city's residents took out an annual permit, the city would bring in $177,000.

Considering the staff time needed to set up online registration and enforce the code, he said the new regulation would simply "make government bigger" — a move he wouldn't support.

Albrecht said he has two fire pits in his yard to entertain neighbors and grill food.

"I cook with wood," he said. "That's what I use to barbecue, and that would have been illegal [without a permit]."

Not looking for money

Both Mayor Mike Kuehn and City Manager Jason Ziemer maintain the city's motives for implementing the fire fee were increased safety and educational outreach, not turning a profit.

When recreational fires are registered with the city, the fire and police departments are better positioned to efficiently respond to fire calls, they said. Likewise, they said registration presents another opportunity for city officials to educate residents on fire codes, which outline what materials can be burned and during which hours.

They'd hoped that better informing residents of safe fire practices would decrease the overall number of fire calls.

"I'd like to see registration," Kuehn said. "But I've never been hung up on the fee."

Before bringing the issue to a final vote, Kuehn reminded the crowd, as well as those watching the meeting at home, that the city turns over about 8 percent of its population every year. With this, he said, there's a constant need to educate new residents on the rules against burning contaminated wood, or other materials that produce lots of smoke.

Most phone calls ever

Council member Terry Furlong reiterated his original concerns over the registration requirement conflicting with the spontaneous nature of people holding backyard campfires.

"For them to have to get a permit, and [if they] cannot because were closed down here [at City Hall], I don't think that's right," he said, adding this item spurred the most calls he's ever received on a city issue.

Council member Jan Walczak agreed that the fire fee warranted further discussion, but asserted that the council had acted on the best information they had at the time, which hadn't included any public opposition.

"What started out as a good thought and hopeful opportunity for education just really went south, because we weren't able to share our information the way it could have best been shared," she said. "That's unfortunate."

Given residents' objections, however, it's unlikely the fire registration and fee would have gone over well no matter how the news spread.

According to Minke, he also has the city's best interest in mind.

"I'm a big North St. Paul guy," Minke said. "I really believe in the town. When something comes up that I don't believe in, I'm right there to fight it."

Erin Hinrichs can be reached at 651-748-7814 and ehinrichs@lillienews.com. Follow her at twitter.com/EHinrichsNews.

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