Updated 3:45 p.m. May 30
How does the Southern Milwaukee County Fire Department sound to you, Greenfield?
A report released Wednesday will likely serve as a jumping-off point for discussions in five southern Milwaukee County communities about consolidating fire department services.
The Public Policy Forum report identifies ways in which fire departments in Greenfield, Greendale, Hales Corners, Oak Creek and Franklin could consolidate and save money -- including combining all five into one. The study comes after about a year of research, involving fire chiefs and administrators from all five communities who explored the range of consolidation possibilities.
Local officials last year in the face of ongoing budget struggles for municipal governments.
The Public Policy Forum report presents three models of how that could be done:
- A coordinated support services model would involve comparatively minor changes, such as consolidation in training, vehicle maintenance and fire inspection services for the five departments.
- An operational consolidation model goes deeper. Operations would be unified under a "closest unit responds" approach, regardless of municipal boundary. But the departments remain separate entities.
- Under a full consolidation model, the five departments would merge into one, with its own governance structure, budget, equipment and personnel.
According to the report, the latter model would provide the greatest savings of the three options -- about $1 million per year, with no closings of fire stations and minimal reductions in staff.
But it presents several questions as well.
"The full consolidation model retains all existing station locations and minimizes personnel reductions, thus alleviating two of the primary concerns that typically emerge during fire consolidation deliberations," Public Policy Forum President Rob Henken said.
"Elected officials from each municipality will need to determine, however, whether the potential financial savings and improved operational efficiency associated with consolidation offset possible concerns about relinquishing their ability to independently determine the appropriate framework for providing fire and emergency medical services to their residents and businesses."
Much work ahead
Local officials have awaited the Public Policy Forum report for some time, but its release on Wednesday is only the beginning of discussions about whether and how much consolidation the communities should consider.
Greenfield . After seeing the report, neither's stance has changed.
"Because there is concern of giving up autonomy and local control, could there be some functional aspects and then an operational outlook and then a few years later, a full consolidation?" Cohn said. "I think there can be, but I don’t think there’s time for that due to the current status of financing our budgets.
"We’re sort of at a hallmark moment with service levels. If you continue on the status quo, you’re going to be faced with cost restraints that will trickle into service-level decisions."
Neitzke said he thinks consolidation makes sense.
"I've always been a strong advocate of sharing of services and consolidation, if it saves money, is more efficient, and stabilizes or improves service," he said. "The report seems to suggest that all of those things are possible.
"While the report is 50 or so pages long, it reinforces what we've seen all along. If there is a major fire, like at St. Al's (in Greendale) not so long ago, we all respond in concert now. Along with Franklin, we've been serving Greendale and Hales Corners with paramedic services for years. Those services were supplemented with county paramedic funding dollars. That , and expected is to disappear next year. The timing of this study assists all of us with the urgency created by losing that revenue stream."
Oak Creek Mayor Steve Scaffidi said some of the suggestions laid out in the report, such as consolidating fire department vehicles to save money on repairs and maintenance, could make sense and be the easiest steps to take.
A full consolidation "would probably not be a popular move," he said, and might not be advantageous for Oak Creek given that it continues to grow at a high rate.
"Consolidation is something we'll always consider," Scaffidi said, "We'll continue to look at options ... given how tight budgets are."
Oak Creek Fire Chief Tom Rosandich couldn't be immediately reached for comment Wednesday morning, but said in a May 18 interview that a full consolidation could get highly political and the cost savings would have to be enough to justify it.
"Do the people want another layer of government?" Rosandich said. "Because basically you're adding a board of directors that didn’t exist before, and do the other political figures want to give that up."
Rosandich said many consolidations have already gone on within city departments, like shared Information Technology services, facilities maintenance and dispatch.
The idea of consolidation has been met with mixed reaction in the other four communities. Greendale, for example, .
Among the objections Greendale officials raised in October was the loss of the village's autonomy in providing emergency services, fear of losing money through consolidation and concerns that service levels could decline.
Greendale has been in favor, however, of coordinated and shared services. Like Oak Creek, it relies heavily on a mutual-aid system, particularly with Greenfield.
So, what's next?
"That’s the ultimate question, because we knew this wouldn’t be the end all," Cohn said. "It created equally as many questions as it answered. But it can be shelved and gather dust. It can be further discussed with momentum. Or we can sit down and specifically discuss with the intention of following through and come up with some level of consolidation."