To some, consolidation is a dirty word.
Schools consolidate when one or more are no longer able to stand on their own. Businesses consolidate often leading to a whittling of employees down to the bare minimum. And for an example that hit close to home for Greenfield residents a few years back, the local media consolidated into regionalized coverage, stripping the individual communities of their own “voice.”
But to others, consolidation is an opportunity to streamline practices, polices and procedures in a time when financial efficiency is the key to providing a level of service customers have grown accustomed to.
At the Common Council meeting Oct. 4 the City of Greenfield voted to contribute $1,500 toward a study to review the potential consolidation of fire, emergency medical, and police and fire dispatch services.
That fact-finding mission, performed by the Public Policy Forum and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, comes on the heels of Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget, that has asked local municipalities to find ways to continue to deliver good service with less resources.
"The study can’t happen soon enough to see what the options are," Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke said.
Neitzke understands the value of a community maintaining its own identity. A Greenfield High School graduate who has spent nearly his entire life living within city limits, he doesn’t want Greenfield’s parochialism taken away for the sake of saving a few bucks. But these are tough times that require potential change, he said.
"If it makes more sense to do something cost-effectively by teaming and partnering with others and sustain a service but also keep a close eye on the cost without affecting quality, I’d be foolish not to do those things," he said.
Besides, Neitzke said, if you are choking on a chicken bone or your heart stops beating, are you going to run outside to see what city’s name is on the side of the truck?
"The initial hurdle is obviously difficult, but people want service," Greenfield Interim Fire Chief Jon Cohn said. "I’ve never been turned away because I was with the wrong fire department. They want someone who is there timely and professional and able to deliver good service.
"The fear is that (upon consolidation) you’d go to the lowest common denominator. But through my experiences, the services were raised to the highest, best practice, instead of sinking to the lowest."
That statement doesn't go far enough in calming the fears of Greenfield's neighbors in Greendale, where the Village Board of Trustees wavered over paying the $1,500 for the study. Among the objections Greendale officials raised were the loss of the village’s autonomy in providing emergency services, fear about losing money through consolidation and worries that service levels could decline.
Though for now unrelated, Greenfield is already looking at leaving the Milwaukee County paramedic program and teaming with neighboring communities to continue to provide that service residents. A new paramedic program, whatever that might look like, would likely be constructed around strong ties Greenfield already has with some of its neighbors.
Consolidation would be no different, according Cohn, whose predecessor Russ Spahn was also in favor of consolidation.
"We have excellent relationships currently through mutual aid, but what we have is cooperation," Cohn said. "What consolidation offers is we all work under one philosophy, one umbrella, one culture. We move from that cooperation to coordination. People under the cooperation model sort of wait to be told what to do. Under the coordinated model, people know what to do and just do it."
As interim chief, or even if he’s eventually named permanent chief, Cohn finds himself in a unique position when discussing consolidation. Should, for example, the municipalities in Zone D – Greenfield, Hales, Corners, Greendale and Franklin – consolidate, theoretically, it eliminates the need for four separate chiefs and four separate command staffs.
That’s one of the advantages of consolidation, Neitzke said. Instead of spending money on command staff, if there are dollars left over, the city can spend them on delivering service, not on bureaucracies and the administrative functions.
But where would that leave Cohn, or others like him? For the interim chief at least, the potential personal / professional sacrifice falls behind the greater good.
"It puts you into a funny personal position, but I think if you look at the bigger, ultimate service-delivery goal, I want to work for that efficient model," Cohn said. "People will float to their new levels, and I’d much rather float to a new level in a solid sustainable organization than to be the head of an organization that faces continuous cuts.
"I see the bigger value in the future than right now."