Staffing, service on the line as NSFD board deliberates budget

Chief worries about response times if zero increase adopted

Sept. 11, 2012

The North Shore Fire Department will likely decrease its current level of 99 nonadministrative staff members to between 96 and 92, depending on which 2013 budget its board chooses at an upcoming Sep. 24 meeting.

The NSFD board of directors met last week, and again this week on Tuesday, to review three budget scenarios presented by Fire Chief Robert Whitaker. The most costly option, no longer on the table, would have kept staff at its current levels. The NSFD board is now deliberating between a middle-ground cost and staffing option of 96, and an option that would keep cost to member communities flat from 2012 and reduce staffing to 92.

"Staffing at 92 would require layoffs and additional reduction through attrition," Whitaker said, "whereas, with staffing at 96, we can do that strictly through attrition."

The cost of either of those two budgets would be distributed among the member communities - Bayside, Brown Deer, Fox Point, Glendale, River Hills, Shorewood, and Whitefish Bay - based on fixed percentages in a funding formula that was recently approved by the NSFD board and is making rounds through the member communities for approval.

With the staffing level at 96, all member communities would see a contribution increase over the 2012 budget, ranging from 1.1 percent to 3.6 percent. The 92 staff member option would lead to a decrease in contribution from 2012 for all member communities except Glendale.

Community costs

The first of the three options presented by Whitaker would include a 4.5 percent increase in the overall NSFD budget, and would keep line-staff at its current level of 99. That option was quickly discarded by members of the NSFD board.

"I would focus on proposals two and three," Robert Brunner, representing River Hills, told Whitaker at the Sep. 6 meeting.

Reducing staff to 96 would accompany a 1.9 percent increase in overall member community contribution to the NSFD budget - ranging from an approximate $4,000 for River Hills to approximately $121,398 for Glendale. With this option, the overall NSFD budget would increase 1.4 percent from 2012 to approximately $13.9 million.

A further reduction of staff to 92 would allow the overall contribution of member communities to NSFD to remain flat in relation to the previous 2012 budget, and would accompany an approximately $13.7 million 2013 budget - a reduction of 0.2 percent from the prior budget year.

Some North Shore municipal administrators are apprehensive that an increase in their contribution to the NSFD budget would eat into their municipal budgets, which are constrained by state-mandated levy limits.

"If this group does something by October first that then is blended into our community budget … we simply have to work with that," Whitefish Bay Village Manager Patrick DeGrave told the NSFD board at the Sep. 6 meeting. "Without a comprehensive look at all the needs of Whitefish Bay, we're going to be putting NSFD first in line without taking a look at all the other services."

Level of service

Both of the budget options under consideration would result in a reduction of NSFD on-duty staff. Currently, 27 firefighters man the department's five stations across the North Shore at any given time. The option with 96 line-staff members would reduce that number to 24 - potentially 25 if circumstances call for it. The 92 line-staff member option would mean 22 on duty, a number that prompted some doubts from Whitaker.

"That would be a significant change in how we do business," Whitaker said. "I'm concerned at that level, and we would have to look for alternative means to provide some level of services."

Whitaker also said that a reduction of staff to that level would likely lead to increased response times in scenarios where NSFD needs to draw firefighters and equipment from its stations throughout the North Shore.

"You would have more people coming from far away," Whitaker said.

That concern was echoed by Steve Tippel, President of the Local 1440, who said he would hope North Shore municipalities consolidate other services and free up resources for the fire department.

"I'm not sure when (the board) is thinking and deciding, if they're factoring (service levels) in," he said.

According to Whitaker, the department is trying to become accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence, which should allow the North Shore community to decide the level of service it's comfortable with.

"(Accreditation) gives the decision points, community input and goals to achieve, given what the community wants," Whitaker said.

Tippel said that he would be comfortable with staffing cuts, but only after he knows community members would accept the resultant cuts in service.

"They're the ones I consider the bosses," Tippel said.

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