It’s already been decided. A new fire station is needed in St. Peter. The question voters will answer Nov. 2 is whether they want the estimated $9.4 million facility to be built with the help of a sales tax or just property taxes.

A city is not required to ask for permission before bonding for a facility project, as it has the authority to levy the dollars through increased property taxes. City leaders, Fire Department leaders and elected officials have concluded that the near 100-year-old fire station in downtown St. Peter does not meet the standards of today, and a new facility is crucial to the fire service’s future.

What the city does need permission for is a sales tax. With the state Legislature’s approval, which St. Peter now has, a city can ask residents whether they’d like to institute a sales tax in their community, in order to help pay for a special project.

The sales tax proposed for St. Peter is a half-cent to every dollar, the same as the one instituted in Mankato currently to help pay for the civic center there. In this case, city leaders believe the money raised from the sales tax would be enough to completely cover the annual cost of the first station construction over the next 40 years (or less). In the event that a sales tax did not raise the full amount needed for a given year, the remaining cost would be levied through property taxes.

The need

At 8,000 square feet, the biggest problem with the current St. Peter fire station, located at the corner of W. Mulberry and Third streets, is space. The new facility, to be located on the northwest corner of Broadway Avenue and Sunrise Drive, is designed to be 23,000 square feet.

“We do not currently have the space to house all of our equipment,” firefighter Darrell Pettis said. “We have to basically triple nest some of our equipment, which means we have a firetruck and two pickups in one bay, and there is less than three feet to walk in between them. During the winter, we house the city tanker they use to water plants, and we keep extra water in it; we have to keep one of our pickups in one of the garage doors. We don’t have enough room.”

He added, “At some point, we’ll have to replace our aerial, which is 52 years old right now, and whatever we replace it with is substantially larger, and we don’t think we’ll be able to get that in the fire station.”

Pettis described what it’s like to operate in such tight quarters.

“If you go in there right now, we have two pickups backed up to each other, and their bumpers are literally touching, and to get around them we have to squeeze between one of them and a firetruck, and that space is about 1 foot wide,” he said. “To clean the hose, we have to park everything outside in the one bay, so we can lay it out to clean and then get it coiled back up. We don’t have effective clothes dryer, so the gear has to be hung up on a clothes line next to the washer, and the water just falls on the ground.”

Fire Chief Matt Ulman emphasized the need for decontamination in firefighting today.

“Because the times have changed for cancers and all that stuff in the fire service,” he said. “One in three firemen get diagnosed with cancer nowadays. We need more room to clean and decontaminate ourselves and our gear when we come back from a call.”

He added, “The new location would have dedicated spaces for decontamination, office spaces, meeting spaces, dedicated equipment spaces. It would have actual decontamination rooms for the firefighters. We don’t have any full-time people; we’re strictly volunteer.”

Sales tax

The sales tax seems to have near unanimous support among leaders at the city and Fire Department levels. Even those running for council in 2021 seem to agree; at a recent forum, every candidate indicated they support the sales tax as a way to pay for the new fire station.

Residents, though, will have to decide whether or not they want to spend more on purchases in town, as opposed to seeing the costs levied through property taxes. Renters in the community may prefer the property tax route, given they don’t pay those taxes, but Pettis pointed out that renters would also likely feel the impact that way.

“Rental buildings are usually commercial, and commercial buildings have a higher rate than the homestead for net tax capacity, so renters actually would be picking that up, because if property taxes go up, then rents would be going up,” he said.

For Chief Ulman, a property owner in town, the answer to whether he support the sales tax was simple.

“Yeah,” he said, “because I don’t want it to go to my property taxes.”

Reach Regional Managing Editor Philip Weyhe at 507-931-8579 or follow him on Twitter @EditorPhilipWeyhe. ©Copyright 2021 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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