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 said they wanted to study greater service sharing 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.
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, has been wary of fire consolidation from the beginning.
Greendale officials declined comment on the report, saying they were still reviewing it. But among the objections they raised in October were 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.
Greenfield Mayor Michael Neitzke and Fire Chief Jon Cohn have long been proponents of consolidation. After seeing the report, Cohn's stance has not 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."
--David Cotey and Viviana Buzo contributed to this report.