BEMIDJI -- The health of volunteer firefighter pensions and county finances across the region was checked on by Minnesota State Auditor Julie Blaha this week.
A visit to Bemidji for Blaha was one of several made to area cities where she talked about financial statuses and policies. Locally, Blaha met with Beltrami County Auditor/Treasurer JoDee Treat and Assistant Bemidji Fire Chief Bruce Hemstad.
Blaha said her meeting with Hemstad was to gather information on the local volunteer relief fire association pension. Pension coverage for paid firefighters is provided by the Public Employment Retirement Association. To attract and retain volunteer firefighters, though, volunteer fire associations were established.
"We have a fire relief association working group with the auditor's office," Blaha said. "It pulls people together to make sure the FRA has the policies it needs to do their work well. Our job is to find out how to make things work better."
According to Blaha, work on FRAs need to have a balance between local control and statewide policy.
"Visiting in person is educational for me, to let me know I have good context for what we do. There's no better way to get the context than to show up," Blaha said. "Basically, we need to know how we're going to keep people safe as trends change and as where people live and work change. As that happens, it can affect public safety, and we need to have systems that can accommodate that."
In meeting with the county auditor, Blaha said she wanted to have an understanding of the strains counties are dealing with.
"One of our goals is knowing what happens at the local level, because we have the chance to share that at a larger stage," Blaha said. "They're doing really interesting things to make sure their finances are solid, comfortable and effective."