Report: Fire department consolidation would save 5 communities millions

File photo

Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners and Oak Creek have a total of 10 fire stations.

Five southern Milwaukee County communities could save millions of dollars over the next five years if they consolidated their fire departments, a report by the Public Policy Forum says.

Franklin, Greendale, Greenfield, Hales Corners and Oak Creek could save $1 million annually in operating costs and about $4 million over the next five years in vehicle replacement costs if they formed one fire department, the report released Wednesday states.

The communities could save money if they stopped short of consolidation and shared some services, but the saving would not be as great, said Rob Henken, forum president.

For example, if the communities retained all five fire departments but operated under an "automatic aid agreement" in which the closest unit responds to a fire or EMS call regardless of municipal boundary, the municipalities potentially could save $3.35 million on vehicle replacement costs over five years. The report refers to this set up as an "operational consolidation."

"Essentially, all calls would be treated as if it was a consolidated department, but still you would have five independent departments that would maintain their own personnel, their own personnel policies, their own equipment," Henken said.

A third option, the report says, is to share some services, such as fire inspections, vehicle maintenance and training. This would produce efficiencies but probably not a lot of saving, Henken said.

The five departments have a total of 10 fire stations.

Under full consolidation, all 10 would remain open, with chiefs saying these stations were needed to effectively serve the region, the report says.

"That's often one of the most dicey political issues when it comes to consolidation approaches, because deciding which firehouse to close is often a very touchy issue," Henken said. "In this case, we're not talking about closing any, so you don't have that political problem. At the same time, the dollar savings . . . aren't as great as they would be if indeed you were looking at reducing the number of firehouses."

Local control at issue

Although that political issue likely won't come up, another possibly thorny one would.

"On the financial side, weighing potential cost savings against the loss of local control is a difficult endeavor," the report notes.

Henken said because 10 stations would remain, there would not be a dramatic reduction in staffing under the model the forum used for its report.

"There would be a reduction in terms of command staff, the most obvious is instead of needing five chiefs, you'd only need one. The model that we created would actually add back a couple of assistant chiefs because you'd need that for a larger department. But the way we developed the model, we did not reduce the number firefighting staff in the region," Henken said.

Overall, staffing would be reduced from about 178 full-time equivalent positions to 170.5, the report says.

The annual saving of about $1 million in operational costs would be achieved through the reduction of those positions and cuts in overtime, Henken said.

As far as vehicles, the consolidated department would need 25 engines, ambulances and ladder trucks compared with the current 40 the departments have, Henken said.

Henken said the report was undertaken after the Public Policy Forum and the Greater Milwaukee Committee last year suggested to the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council that in light of increasingly challenging municipal budget pressures that a more formalized process be created to explore shared services and consolidation opportunities. The ICC is made up of the 19 municipalities in Milwaukee County.

Fire services emerged at the top of the list because significant portions of municipal budgets are devoted to public safety, Henken said.

Additionally, Milwaukee County has a "solid example of a successful consolidated fire department," the North Shore department, which was created in 1995, Henken said.

If the municipalities decide to go forward with consolidation, they would have to decide on a funding formula for a joint department. The North Shore department has a formula based on population, activity level and equalized value, Henken said.

Although there is a savings overall, the report notes that Hales Corners might end up paying more under a consolidated department for fire and EMS services because it has a paid, on-call department now. In return, it would receive the benefits of a full-time fire department, the report says.

The report comes as municipalities across Wisconsin are looking for ways to save money in the face of significant cuts in state aid payments and levy limits imposed by state lawmakers.

"We see this as an opening step that provides a good base of information from which if there is an interest in pursuing either enhanced sharing or consolidation, the five communities could move forward," Henken said.

Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor said he plans to have the report on the Common Council's agenda next week for a referral to the finance and personnel committees and fire and police commission.

"I'm starting to put my budget together. I'm sure the other municipalities are doing the same. Every year it seems like we're working with less money. I think we're going to take a hard look at it," Taylor said of the report.

Todd Michaels, Greendale's village administrator, said Wednesday that officials were reviewing the report and were not ready to comment.

"It's a large report with a lot of different ideas in it. It just doesn't point to one conclusion. It's something that we'll likely discuss with some of the other communities," he said.