MINERAL WELLS — An upbeat night mapping a promising future for Mineral Wells Regional Airport and the approval of a gift from city leaders-in-training shifted Tuesday night when Fire/EMS Chief Ryan Dunn told the city council his staff level is shrinking as the city grows.
"I'm sorry I'm kind of a killjoy when it comes to these great things," Dunn said, midway through a presentation that convinced the council to dip into its reserve balance to fund three new firefighter/paramedics.
Dunn said his staff of seven, including himself, is one crew member shy of the bare minimum needed for two fire stations. He also produced national data showing a department serving a city the size of Mineral Wells needs dramatically more trained people.
And an upsurge in calls, combined with the short staffing, is demoralizing — and endangering — his firefighters, Dunn said.
"It's getting to where we're starting to get people wanting to leave," he said.
The chief said the number of calls for ambulance service or fire suppression had surpassed the 2019 level at 3 p.m. Tuesday. The 2020 call level was even greater, at 3,229, and Dunn said the department is on track to respond to 3,600 to 4,000 this year.
He later said there had been 26 structure fire calls in 2020 and 44 so far this year.
"We have never experienced increasing call volume like this. We have people making mistakes," he said. "We're starting to see employees making mistakes, getting injured."
City Manager Randy Criswell backed the chief, describing daily, highly detailed equipment checks and routine chores such as testing flow pressures the crews undertake beyond their constant calls for service.
"These guys are killing themselves," Criswell said, adding the stereotype of firefighters hanging out in their station cooking is just that. "It ain't TV — this is real, and this is serious."
After some stop-gap measures were discussed, such as taking on part-time workers or hiring the one full-timer Dunn said was critical, the council agreed to bolster his force by three.
He had said that would cost about $210,000 during his presentation. Criswell's budget for the year was designed to reach Sept. 30, 2022, with a $12.5 million ending balance.
The chief said he'd avoided asking for additional funds while the council was considering the budget, which went into effect on Oct. 1.
"I'd say three months ago we started getting that incline (in burnout)," he said. "That's when we started seeing people fall, making mistakes."
City managers and city council members across Texas typically shy from touching that fund, which during the budget year is called the reserve, or contingency account. But both Criswell and several council members said this was an immediate need for the city.
"The important questions tonight are, what do we do for immediate relief?" Mayor Pro Tem Doyle Light said, recommending Dunn return to the next council meeting with a recommendation to hire either one or three firefighters. "Bring us your immediate relief and let us address that."
Mayor Regan Johnson, though, opposed waiting two weeks for the next council session.
Councilwoman Beth Watson soon brought up dipping into the reserve account for an emergency hire of three crew members.
"Nothing else makes any sense," she said. "And it's a real emergency."
The vote to hire three was unanimous.
Before the dire news on the public safety front, airport consultants Holland Young and John Terrell walked the council and members of the Airport Advisory Board through planning options that were heavy on economic development.
Often stressing the municipal airport plan must assure hangar owners and other users of the facility they will not be forgotten, the pair offered several elements to bring more business to town through its runways.
Those included restoring an unused, two-story training building into a trade school and enlisting the Mineral Wells ISD to offer welding, plumbing, mechanics and other high-skilled trades to its students.
"It's not all about four-year (college) education anymore," Terrell said. "And it shouldn't be … The high school and school district has to be willing to partner and say, 'This is a great opportunity for our students.'"
The consultants said they are negotiating a letter of intent with Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter for a 10,000- to 12,000-square-foot office with a 15,000-square-foot training space at the airport.
"Bell's name alone will attract others," Terrell said.
He and Holland also said they are in discussions with Dauntless Air, which builds wildfire fighter airplanes.
Those and other industrial prospects would require a maintenance, repair and overhaul shop at the airport, they said. Executives of those firms would require an MRO shop to keep their company jets landing and taking off.
The trade school also could feed the MRO and the new companies that could arrive, the consultants said.
"There's an opportunity to create jobs in Mineral Wells and keep people in Mineral Wells," Terrell said. "You're seeing high-skilled jobs."
No action was taken during the workshop, but council members sounded enthusiastic and said they will return to airport planning at their next meeting.
"That's a lot to take in," Councilman Brian Shoemaker said after the hour-long presentation, which also included building a new entrance marker for the airport and designating the three main highways between the airport and downtown to favor residential or truck traffic but not both.
"I think the airport has a bright future," the mayor said at the close of discussion.
Also Tuesday, the council fulfilled a deal it made with a volunteer outfit serving as an incubator for future city leaders. Leadership Class 26 had offered to raise money for downtown trash receptacles if the city would match the fundraising effort.
Melody Singleton and group President Cody Jordan announced Tuesday the team had raised $10,430 toward the effort. The council agreed to match it for a $20,860 total.
Criswell said the city will order 28 trash cans and install them downtown.
The council on Tuesday also agreed to go out for bids on trash service by Friday, after Criswell and a consultant described elements the city wants carriers to include.
Mineral Wells' contract with trash collector Waste Connections expires at the end of February 2022. Criswell has said he hopes to have a new contract inked in December.
Saying the winning bidder will reimburse the city for his company's work, consultant Lynn Lacker said bidders will propose how often they will empty the convenience station where recyclables are collected.
The winning bidder also will pay the city a 12-percent franchise fee, based on gross receipts the carrier takes in.
The franchise fee is in exchange for Mineral Wells allowing only the winning bidder to operate in the city.
In addition to residential curbside pickup, bidders will offer weekly, twice-a-week and monthly bulk item and brush pickup options for the council to choose depending on costs.
The company also will be responsible to change the trash bags in the 28 new downtown cans.
The new provider will submit daily complaint reports logging its interactions with unhappy customers, and it will offer a "reverse 911" service to alert neighborhoods when trucks are running late.
As discussed in a previous meeting, Criswell said the carrier will pick up downtown and other areas after city-sponsored events. Groups organizing non-city events will be told they have to arrange cleanup services with the city's trash service provider.