Home Part of States Newsroom
St. Paul fire chiefs enjoy unmarked take-home vehicles and unlimited gas


St. Paul fire chiefs enjoy unmarked take-home vehicles and unlimited gas

Feb 22, 2024 | 9:23 am ET
By Max Nesterak
St. Paul fire chiefs enjoy unmarked take-home vehicles and unlimited gas
A take-home vehicle parked in front of the St. Paul Fire Department headquarters in February 2024. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Thirteen leaders of St. Paul’s fire department enjoy a perk not even afforded City Council members: unmarked, black Chevy Tahoes, Suburbans and Ford Explorers plus unlimited gas.

The St. Paul Fire Department says the take-home vehicles are justified because they’re equipped with gear and technology to allow department leaders to respond to emergencies at a moment’s notice, though some rank-and-file firefighters say they’re a rare sight on the scene.

Gas records show some of the fire chiefs spend hundreds of dollars a month filling up, according to data obtained by the Reformer through a public records request.

The highest gas consumer is Assistant Chief of Operations Jeramiah Melquist, who drives a 2021 Chevy Suburban. He spent an average of about $503 per month on gas from November 2022 through October 2023, the most recent 12 months of data provided by the city.

The average gas expense of all the 13 fire department leaders during that time was $261.15 per month totaling $41,261.15.

St. Paul Fire Department Spokesman Roy Mokosso, who averaged $373.25 a month in gas on his city-issued 2016 Chevy Tahoe, said Melquist has to travel across the state often because he coordinates with various state emergency response teams including hazmat and air rescue teams.

Melquist also lives in Lindstrom, about 40 miles north of St. Paul, according to public property records.

Like Melquist, most of the fire chiefs and captains with take-home vehicles live outside St. Paul, some as far away as Excelsior and western Wisconsin, according to property records.

“That frustrates me that we’re subsidizing their decision to live way outside the city,” said Jane Prince, a former City Council member who raised concerns about the use of take-home vehicles during her time in office. “Just giving them gas to drive back and forth from work to the exurbs … That doesn’t make sense.”

Prince said she understands the department’s stated justification that the take-home vehicles allow fire chiefs and captains to respond to emergencies around the clock, but she would like to know how often leaders are actually coming back into the city to respond to calls. She said she’s heard complaints from within the department that the vehicles are treated like personal property instead of city vehicles that are only supposed to be used for city business.

Fire Chief Butch Inks, who averaged $157.66 per month in gas, declined an interview request through Mokosso, who cited his busy schedule. The Reformer asked how often department leaders used their vehicles for emergencies but spokesman Mokosso did not provide specifics.

Mayor Melvin Carter’s office did not provide comment.

St. Paul fire chiefs enjoy unmarked take-home vehicles and unlimited gas
St. Paul Fire Department take-home vehicles are difficult to distinguish but are equipped with some additional technology to respond to emergencies. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Not all of the gas charges can be explained by long commutes. The fire department’s second-highest gas user is Deputy Chief Dwayne Gibbs, who heads the city’s mental health response unit.

Gibbs lives in St. Paul, according to public property records, and averaged $467.22 per month in gas charges between October 2022 and October 2023 with his 2022 Chevy Tahoe (the second newest vehicle after the fire chief’s 2023 Chevy Suburban).

The unit Gibbs oversees, the Community Alternative Response Emergency Services (CARES) team, has just two staff and only operates from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays.

Gibbs doesn’t routinely show up to mental health calls, according to Mokosso, and the unit itself has only responded to about 450 calls in nearly two years, from when it launched in spring 2022 to the end of January 2024. For comparison, the St. Paul fire department went on 5,465 runs in one month in January 2024, according to the department’s newsletter.

Mokosso said Gibbs stood up a new program and needed to coordinate with leaders from other jurisdictions. Mokosso said the scope of the CARES team’s work isn’t adequately measured by the number of 911 calls they’ve responded to because Gibbs and his two staff will also do outreach and follow-up meetings at homeless encampments, for example.

Leaders of other large Minnesota fire departments also have take-home cars. In Duluth, nine fire department leaders have take-home vehicles. In Rochester, 11 fire department leaders have take-home vehicles. Minneapolis and Bloomington have not responded to public records requests filed nearly three months ago regarding take-home cars.

Mokosso also noted that department leaders with take-home vehicles have $3 per day deducted from their paychecks said the vehicles aren’t extravagant. His has 159,000 miles on it, for example.

“I think when people think take-home vehicles, they think like, they’re getting some sort of fancy car or something like that,” Mokosso said. “And I know [the police department] has a lot of them. We don’t have quite as many.”

The police department does have far more take-home vehicles than the fire department: 118 vehicles, which are assigned to deputy chiefs, commanders, sergeants and rank-and-file officers.

St. Paul Police spokesman Mike Ernster, who averaged $152.37 per month on a Chevy Impala and Ford Taurus, said take-home vehicles are assigned to people with specialized jobs like homicide detectives and officers with police dogs. He said they need to be able to respond around the clock and have vehicles equipped for pursuits. Police staff do not pay $3 per day for use of the vehicles, Ernster said.

Mokosso didn’t say how much a Chevy Tahoe or Ford Explorer costs the department. Ernster said a Tahoe runs about $50,000 plus another $15,000 to outfit a vehicle for use as a patrol car.

The expense for take-home vehicles is minuscule given the fire department’s overall budget of around $85 million for 2024. By comparison, the city is purchasing the state’s first electric fire truck for $1.8 million, which far surpasses the gas and purchase price of a fleet of take-home Tahoes.

Even so, city finances are tight. The property tax levy increased nearly 15% in St. Paul from 2022 to 2023, while residents and visitors will also have to pay an extra 1% sales tax on purchases in the city to pay for road and parks improvements, investments that are usually part of a city’s basic operating expenses.

Prince has also been critical of Inks expanding the number of chiefs in the department — and the increase in administrative staff citywide. She said she doesn’t understand why the head of the CARES team, the mental health unit with two workers, needs to be a deputy chief, for instance.

“It seems very top heavy to me,” Prince said.