Board-up program burning a hole in Fire Departments pocket

Minneapolis City Council members are poised to end a year-old program that had the Fire Department boarding up vacant homes.

Fire Chief Alex Jackson gave the city’s public safety committee a report today 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. Instead, council members said it was time to extinguish the board-up plan. 

“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,” said Fire Chief Alex Jackson.

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 Tom Deegan, director of housing inspection 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’s 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 who owned the homes. In recent times, the department has recouped about 79 percent of board-up costs, Deegan said.

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