Unofficial benefits may be limited, documented
It may be OK for firefighters to wash their cars on the city’s dime at the fire hall.
If city employees perform minor car repairs in the heated shop, maybe that builds camaraderie.
But don’t take the snowplow home.
Benefits beyond pay and pension for city workers were on the agenda at April and May Scandia City Council work sessions. On June 4, the council is expected to act on a policy defining and limiting use of city facilities and equipment by city employees. The meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m.
In response to a misuse of city equipment by a city employee, City Administrator Kristina Handt proposed a new policy to the council on April 2. The policy was modeled after other cities and reviewed by the city attorney.
The policy calls for professional conduct in using city vehicles, including staff paying for their own traffic violations and not taking passengers except on official city business.
Under the proposed policy, workers would not be allowed to use city tools, equipment or furnishings for personal reasons. Washing personal vehicles, tuning engines and rotating tires would also be forbidden.
By clearly allowing for no use of city equipment for private purposes, the policy would remove any gray areas. But it met with resistance.
Fire Chief Mike Hinz said firefighters have traditionally been allowed to wash their vehicles and do minor auto repairs in the fire hall, and this has many benefits to the department, including recruitment. Assistant Chief Bill Havener said he believes every fire department in the state offers these perks.
“We’ve got 25 to 30 guys washing their cars, changing headlights and wiper blades. It’s a great benefit to the fire department to have them there,” he said.
Quicker response times are one result. Firefighters already on site can move out immediately.
Also, an internal fire department policy requires that firefighters do fire hall jobs while they’re there.
In order to go on a call, sometimes it is necessary for a firefighter to bring his or her kids to the fire station, where they can watch TV to pass the time. Because one firefighter stays at the station for radio contact, the children are supervised. These things are all part of the fire department culture.
“This isn’t our job – it’s our hobby,” Havener said. “One of the benefits is using the garage in January when it’s below zero.”
While they’re at the fire hall, Hinz said, firefighters wash fire trucks or clean the building. If the incentives are removed, those tasks would become city maintenance jobs.
Hinz said the state of Minnesota is looking to exempt part of firefighters’ pay because it’s getting hard to find recruits. If the rules are made too strict, it will harm the department, he concluded.
Instead of having a written policy specifying what perks are allowed and not allowed, Hinz recommended letting department supervisors decide a reasonable use of equipment and facilities for their staff.
The council revisited the topic at the May 7 work session.
“Whether you allow it or not, it has to be documented,” Mayor Randall Simonson said. “We have to specifically state what they’re allowed to do. It shows there are rules.”
If firefighters are seen washing their own cars at the fire hall, a written policy allowing this will prevent negative feedback and destructive rumors, he explained.
Simonson suggested that the city need not cut all perks, as some benefit the city. In addition to the firefighters’ quick emergency response, a public works employee using machines to cut, grind and weld may gain experience valuable to the city.
The fire chief and public works director are responsible for interpreting the rules, he said.
“But city employees should not be taking equipment home for personal use,” he added.
Council Member Dan Lee preferred adopting a cut-and-dried policy.
“I like the document we have here,” he said. “Other towns use it, and it’s worked.” Lee moved to add the new language to the personnel policy.
Council Member Jim Schneider agreed. If city employees are allowed personal use of equipment, he questioned whether this should include just firefighters and maintenance staff, or also members of the council. He asked to use the exercise equipment and was denied, he said.
“Where do you draw the line? And what if the equipment breaks that they’re using on their own time?” he asked.
Schneider said violations should be documented and included in a performance review.
“We implemented the step and grade system based on performance reviews. If someone violates the policy, he shouldn’t get the raise.”
Handt also urged equity among the employees and said leaving decisions to department heads may not be equitable.
“Can I have my wedding reception in the hall for free?” she joked.
The motion to add the new policy language was defeated 4-1, with only Lee voting yes. When the council takes up the issue on June 4, the city attorney will provide input on legal issues, including taxes and liability.
Repercussions have already been felt. A maintenance worker scheduled for a step increase was denied it at the May 20 meeting, in spite of having a good review.
The council could not discuss details without going into closed session, but it was apparent that misuse of city equipment was a factor.