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Local officials aren't exactly fired up yet about consolidation

First, plan must prove cost savings

July 24, 2012

Whether five south suburbs can duplicate the current consolidated North Shore Fire Department will depend on whether their respective elected officials see that cost savings and efficiencies outweigh any loss of autonomy.

That's the take from Rob Henken, president of the Public Policy Forum, and Franklin Mayor Tom Taylor, chair of the Intergovernmental Cooperation Council.

The consolidation idea for Franklin, Greendale, Hales Corners and Oak Creek is being presented by the Public Policy Forum, a nonpartisan government watchdog that has already met with fire chiefs and mayors of the five communities.

Addressing governmental units

At his first full government presentation, Henken brought the idea to the Oak Creek Common Council at its July 17 meeting.

The reaction was lukewarm, with council members expressing concern over each community's unique needs. A what-if question noted the concern if a consolidation could survive if one or more communities pulled out.

Henken, who said his organization does not advocate but is presenting research gathered for more than the past six months, added that he hopes to meet with Franklin's elected officials by September. Other invitations to have Henken present is up to each community, he said.

"It's important to point out that we tackled this not only as a research project but also a project to facilitate constructive discussion," Henken said.

In fact, he noted, fire department officials within the communities helped the Public Policy Forum lay out the options that were studied from August 2011 until this past spring.

Consolidation scenarios

Henken's presentations offer three scenarios.

One is a coordinated support services model that would consolidate training, vehicle maintenance and fire inspections. Another would have the five departments operate under a mutual aid agreement in which the closest unit would respond regardless of municipal boundary. The third would be a consolidated South Milwaukee County Fire Department with its own employees and governed by a separate board of directors.

Noting that there are potential cost savings and efficiencies within each scenario, Henken said various forms of consolidation is a national trend. At the state level, Ohio and New Jersey have paved the way for such reorganization.

"When you look at the realities of the state budget, whether you are for or against Act 10, the opportunity to move toward this type of model is there," Henken said. "Public safety is a large portion of every municipal budget. The issue for most communities is whether consolidation can be done so that service is not diminished."

Factors of change

Taylor said consolidation has been a topic of discussion from time to time for a number of years. Until now, the subject has not gained traction.

"It depends on the various communities involved," Taylor said. "Or two things could change the conversation. One would be if (Milwaukee) Mayor Tom Barrett wanted to have all the suburbs be part of the Milwaukee Fire Department. The other would if the state legislature decided to get involved in changing the municipal responsibilities or the number of municipalities."

Taylor said those scenarios are not far-fetched.

"When collective bargaining was established in the 1970s, no one imagined it would be taken away," he said. "The key to getting support for consolidation is money.

"I'm not sure that I would want to sit down and talk about it unless there was a savings involved."

The North Shore Fire Department was organized from 1992 to 1994, It is composed of seven municipalities, including Glendale, Bayside, Brown Deer, Fox Point River Hills, Shorewood and Whitefish Bay. The department includes a board of directors, a fire commission and one chief.

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