Report says consolidation doesn’t add up for PWFD

Study concludes combining departments would cost Port more than staffing its service; referendum may be needed, official says

Port Washington Fire Chief Mark Mitchell at the firehouse. Press file photo
Ozaukee Press staff

A report presented to the Port Washington Common Council on Monday says it would cost the city almost twice as much to consolidate its fire department with those in Saukville and Grafton than it would to improve its own department so it could efficiently handle the number of ambulance calls it receives.

But according to the report, even the so-called enhanced Port fire department option — which comes at a time when most other municipalities in the county are pursuing fire department consolidations — would cost the city at least an additional $1 million annually, and that would likely require a referendum asking residents for permission to exceed state levy limits, Ald. Jonathan Pleitner, chairman of the Finance and License Committee, said Tuesday.

“I can’t think of any other way to do it,” Pleitner said.

Aldermen, who offered few comments Monday, took no action on the report but are expected to discuss and could act on it when they meet on Tuesday, March 7.

The report, which was prepared by city staff members, outlines the challenges facing the department today and into the future, which like its counterparts throughout Ozaukee County has struggled to keep enough paramedics on staff to respond to calls.

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, the report states. On weekends, that number increased to 54%.

While the report  deals with department organization and staffing, it does not take into account how the city would finance these increased costs.

After aldermen decide on an organizational plan, the report states, city staff members would come up with a financing plan that would be presented later this year.

It also does not deal with the long-standing question of whether to build a second fire station on the city’s west side or a public safety complex on Moore Road.

The fact the report shows such a difference in cost between a consolidated department and an enhanced Port department was surprising, Pleitner said Tuesday.

“I was amazed,” he said. “It seemed to me consolidation seems to be a way to make it less expensive. But regardless if you consolidate or not, you’re still talking about adding staff.”

The enhanced department option, he said, doesn’t add administrators but instead adds “the people who are going to be doing the work everyday.”

Although he said he wants to see the costs refined, Pleitner said the enhanced option offers several advantages to residents.

“We know the cost is going to be lower (than consolidation), the response time is going to be lower and the service level is going to be higher than with the other options,” he said.

It will likely be something that can be implemented more quickly than consolidation, he added, noting that there wouldn’t be agreements with other communities to negotiate.

Keeping the status quo, Pleitner said, isn’t an option.

“We can’t keep having time slots that are uncovered,” he said. “We can’t continue to go down that road.”

The addition of six full-time firefighter/paramedics, enough so that four paramedics would be on duty 24/7, under the enhanced department plan would allow the department to respond to as many as two ambulance calls at a time, officials said.

According to the report, an enhanced department would cost $1.8 million, $1 million more than the department is expected to spend in 2024.

Because staffing would be increased over several years, by 2029 the total department cost for the enhanced option would be $2.6 million, the report states.

Consolidating with Grafton and Saukville would cost a total of $5.3 million, not including the cost of paid-on call and paid-on premise staff members, which the report says could add $500,000 to $1 million to the total.

Port Washington’s cost would be $2.2 million more than it would otherwise spend, the report states.

By 2028, it says, the total cost would be at least $9 million.

The biggest reason for the difference in cost, Mitchell said, is administrative costs.

By going it alone, Port’s administrative costs wouldn’t change much, he said.

“The basic worker-bee model is the same,” Mitchell said.

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

But the report says 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.

Mitchell noted that consolidation often helps reduce capital costs for equipment, “but those aren’t everyday purchases.”

The report listed four options for the future — continuing with the status quo, consolidating all the county fire departments, consolidating the central Ozaukee County fire departments and the so-called enhanced Port Fire Department.

But, the countywide consolidation option isn’t possible anymore because other departments have already joined forces — Mequon and Thiensville have consolidated and the county’s northern departments are taking steps toward a consolidation.

The Grafton and Saukville departments currently share a chief and some personnel.

Consolidating departments in the central part of the county has been discussed, but the Cedarburg Fire Department has decided to remain an independent agency.

Something needs to be done, officials said, noting that stress on the ambulance service is only expected to increase over time.

Most of the calls for the ambulance come from the city’s senior citizens, a population that is increasing, the report notes.

And there are 670 acres in the city that could be developed, which would increase the stress on the ambulance service, the report states, noting the city’s population is expected to increase to between 15,600 and 18.200 people by 2035.



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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.

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Port Washington, WI 53074
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