Aldermen skeptical of PWFD staffing study

hey question finding that consolidation would cost twice as much as improving independent department

The Port Washington fire station. Photo by Bill Schanen IV
Ozaukee Press staff

Several Port Washington aldermen on Tuesday expressed skepticism about cost projections presented last week that said enhancing the city’s fire department to efficiently handle emergency calls — particularly ambulance calls — would cost half as much as consolidating with the Grafton and Saukville fire departments.

“We need the right data to make the right decision,” Ald. Dan Benning said.

While some numbers were revised before this week’s meeting, aldermen stopped short of endorsing either option for the department and instead asked city staff members to continue to study both models.

The city should also create a funding strategy for both options, aldermen said.

City Administrator Tony Brown said that task will probably take until late summer to complete.

“I want to make sure we are continuing the consolidation discussions before we make a decision,” Benning said, especially since the numbers used in the report are preliminary.

Ald. Pat Tearney concurred, saying “I think we really need to tear these numbers down and take a good look at them. I really think we need to keep exploring the combined effort, although at this point I find myself leaning toward (the enhanced Port department option).”

Ald. Mike Gasper said that while he initially believed a consolidated department would be best, he is rethinking that now that the number of departments left to partner with has been reduced.

“I kind of fear Port Washington’s going to be the junior partner in this,” he said, noting that Saukville and Grafton have, in many ways, a joint department already and could dominate decisions.

“I like consolidation in the long term. I’m just not sure it works right now,” he said, especially since Cedarburg has dropped out of consolidation talks and a full county department is also off the table. “I think going it alone looks good right now.”

But Ald. Paul Neumyer said that no matter which option is selected, the city is going to have to seriously look at what it can afford.

“We’re going to have to educate the public that it’s going to cost significantly more,” he said.

A referendum seeking to exceed the state-set levy limits is likely as the city looks at ways to fund the enhanced department, which calls for the city to hire an additional six full-time firefighter/paramedics, Benning noted.

“I do believe we’re going to have to go to referendum in the future to cover our cost,” he said.

But Brown noted that Gov. Tony Evers has proposed funding increases that would be aimed at public safety expenditures and could help cover at least some of the cost, but whether those are ultimately approved by the Legislature remains to be seen.

Two firefighters told aldermen Tuesday that they believe the enhanced department option is the right one for Port.

The city, which like most other departments has been struggling to keep enough paramedics on staff to respond to calls, has been looking at ways to beef up its ambulance service for several years. It’s a situation that has become more urgent as the city’s population — especially its senior population — increases, officials said.

Last year, the city did not have enough personnel to answer ambulance calls for at least six hours during the day 42% of the time, and on weekends, that increased to 54% of the time, according to last week’s report to aldermen.

Although the city authorized hiring two full-time firefighter/paramedics last year, the department struggled to retain people in those positions.

But on Tuesday, three full-time firefighter/paramedics were sworn in by City Clerk Susan Westerbeke.

That number isn’t adequate under either the consolidation or enhanced Port department plans being considered by the Common Council.

Under either plan, the city would hire six firefighter/paramedics and three lieutenants who would also be medics, which would allow the city to respond to two ambulance calls at a time around the clock.

Brown told aldermen Tuesday that puts the cost difference between an enhanced Port fire department and a consolidated department at $350,000 in 2025 and $645,000 by 2029.

It would cost the city an additional $1.4 million for a consolidated department in 2025, he said, and a little more than $1 million to enhance the city department.

Among the changes made in the projections, Brown said, are pay rates. The previous projections used a pay rate of $85,000 annually for full-time members of a consolidated department and $63,000 for an enhanced Port department. The new numbers, he said, equalize those wage rates.

But there are still questions to be answered, officials said.

Benning noted that the report calls for staffing levels based on the North Shore Fire Department in Brown Deer, which he said is not comparable to the proposed Port, Saukville and Grafton consolidated department.

“This model has way too many full-time staff managing the operation instead of directly serving the community,” he said. “This model has resulted in cost increases that are not justifiable.”

Last week’s report said that consolidating with Grafton and Saukville would mean having a chief, two assistant chiefs, two deputy chiefs, three battalion chiefs, a fire inspector, an equipment mechanic, a business manager, three captains and six lieutenants.

But under the enhanced Port service, the city would need a fire chief/fire inspector, deputy chief and three lieutenants, the report states.

Brown said that the number of administrative positions required for the consolidated model is likely to decrease as talks between the departments continue.

“I don’t know to what extent,” he said.

Personnel isn’t the only consideration in making a decision on consolidation or an enhanced Port fire department, the report to the council states.

For example, it notes that while a benefit of consolidation is a reduction in the amount of equipment needed by each department because it could be shared, this would also increase response time if vehicles are coming from another municipality.


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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.

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