‘Our citizens are suffering,’ says leader of panel that backs PWFD investment

Commission favors alternative to consolidation but says talks should continue

The Port Washington Fire Station. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

The Port Washington Police and Fire Commission on Monday said they believe that taking steps to enhance the Port Fire Department’s existing services is the best way to move into the future.

However, commission members said they believe consolidation talks with the Grafton and Saukville fire departments should continue until a final decision on the future of the department is made later this year.

“I’m getting tired of talking about this for four years,”Commission Chairman Jim Biever said. “I don’t see this going anywhere. Our citizens are suffering.”

But commission member Sarah Burdette said the city should not close the door on consolidation talks “if they (the Grafton and Saukville departments) are still willing to go further and dive in.”

The commission directed the city to present by August a report that not only includes more refined staffing figures and more definitive cost figures but also a way to finance both options.

Preliminary figures presented Monday showed that enhancing the department could cost the city an extra $1 million compared to $1.4 million for consolidation.

A referendum seeking to exceed the state-imposed levy limits to fund an enhanced department with an additional six full-time firefighter/paramedics is “a strong possibility,” City Administrator Tony Brown said.

Brown noted that one of the main differences in the two options is the amount of administrative positions required, adding that he believes this number will be revised downward for a consolidated department.

The commission’s recommendation comes a week after the Common Council took a similar action but with no deadline attached to a final study.

The commission and the city have been struggling for years with finding a better way to efficiently and effectively staff the ambulance service as the number of volunteers decreases and service requests increase.

For much of the last year, the city has explored consolidation with the villages of Grafton and Saukville and City of Cedarburg. Cedarburg has since pulled out of the talks, opting to go on its own.

“This is a tough pill for us to swallow,” Deputy Fire Chief Joe DeBoer told the commission, noting that last year the department did not have enough people to staff the ambulance for six hours 40% of the time — a number that increased to 54% on weekends.

It was clear from the commission’s comments that members are skeptical of the potential benefit of consolidation.

“I’m wondering if we’re spending time on something when we’re really going in a different direction,” commission member Joe Dean said.

“It’s been my experience that an idea that has been explored for this many years with very little progress is probably not a worthwhile endeavor,” Biever said. “Consolidating our fire department is such an endeavor.

“The proposed enhanced version of adding six firefighter/paramedic positions along with retaining our dedicated paid on-call staffing and working with our mutual aid partners will serve our citizens in the most efficient, locally controlled manner for many years to come.”

Biever noted that a Wisconsin Policy Forum report presented to the city in spring 2021 offered five consolidation options and “the one common denominator in all these options was that whatever we do, improving our fire and EMS department will be expensive.”

Biever said that report showed that Port spends less on fire and ambulance services than Grafton and Saukville, so consolidation is likely to result in “Port Washington taxpayers subsidizing the Grafton and Saukville departments.”

Commission members expressed concern that 30% of the department’s EMS calls are coming from the city’s eight senior living facilities. Often these calls are made after a resident has fallen, DeBoer said, adding that the facilities won’t allow their staff members to pick these residents up.

Commission members said the city should look into charging these facilities for this type of call.

“Is there some way they can be responsible for some of these calls?” Dean asked.

Brown noted that few communities impose those types of charges, saying, “I’m guessing that in the end there’s not a good way to do it or everybody would be doing it.”


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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
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