Talk on fire inspection fees gets hot
By Ben Rodgers
SUAMICO – It’s a good thing members of the fire department were at a special village board meeting on Monday, Oct. 29, because sparks nearly turned to flames as the conversation got heated.
The firefighters were at the meeting because they expressed their opinions on conceptual design ideas for the proposed Fire Station No. 1.
After that, however, talk turned to $33,000 that was asked to be cut from various budgets to afford a full-time fire-fighting position without having to charge fire inspection fees on local businesses.
Last year, the village board cut $290,000 from the budget to keep a low tax rate.
Village President Laura Nelson was not satisfied with Village Administrator Steve Kubacki’s presented cuts.
Kubacki presented cuts of $15,000 each from public works and fire department equipment budgets and $1,500 each from planning and zoning contract services and economic development.
“What we have in front of us is presented intentionally to look uncomfortable, I think that’s done intentionally,” Nelson said. “Because I know we could have taken some of this money, instead of fire department equipment, we could have done it from the contingency fund and not made such a large impact from the fire department. I think some of these so-called recommendations were done to make us feel uncomfortable.”
Kubacki said he doesn’t recommend cuts to the fire department budget at all.
“Administration doesn’t recommend reductions in the fire department, or general fund budgets,” he said. “We believe over the next several years, we really haven’t been addressing inflation and cost increases, and I think in the next several years we’re going to see more and more of that as we go forward.”
Nelson said the village board directed staff to find cuts in each department, not just public works and fire.
She said Kubacki’s cuts were done to make the board feel “horribly uncomfortable.”
“This was done to make it look like we’re going to make it look as horrible as possible, as unattractive as possible, so we’re going to vote it down so we get our inspection fees passed and that’s not the way we’re going to run this village,” Nelson said.
Kubacki took the blame for only making cuts to those departments and not the entire budget.
Troy Noe, fire chief, said the blame doesn’t lie solely on Kubacki.
“This is something that we need,” Noe said of the new firefighter position. “It was my responsibility to find those monies, so I’m the one who said I would take it out of my budget. It was not Steve.”
Trustee Steve Andrews said the conversation took a turn to a place where he wasn’t comfortable.
“If you want to say this was done intentionally, yeah, sure, OK, but look at the point of it,” Andrews said. “The point of it is we can find ways to make cuts, it’s just going to bite us a couple years down the road. This has gotten way out of hand, way out of control, and it has gotten personal in my opinion.”
Andrews also said the village board has discussed these fees for four combined hours over three meetings.
He said he was tired of it and it was time to move on.
Nelson then showed him the door.
“Then you’re welcome to leave,” she told him.
Prior to the discussion on the proposed budget cuts, the board looked at denying the request from the fire department for a full-time firefighter, instead wanting to go with a full-time chief.
“We need a full-time fireman right now,” said Jerry VandenPlas, assistant chief of Fire Station No. 2. “We are short on days like there’s no tomorrow, we have a hard time making a truck of four people during day shifts. The chief is not going to help us.”
Trustee Sky VanRossum said the recommendation from the department was for a firefighter, not a chief.
“They are the ones we look to, to lead this,” he said. “If we’re not willing to listen to the leaders, then why do we have them in the first place?”
Zoning Administrator Steve Dunks said the problem of staffing isn’t exclusive to Suamico.
Dunks said 25 years ago, the volunteer fire department used to consist of two meetings a month and little training.
Now with new technology, he said firefighters have to be trained more, which sets them up for future employment elsewhere.
“The young kids coming out today are not staying with the department, because getting trained on our tax dollars, they’re getting all the training they need for their career, when it used to be something fun,” Dunks said.
The motion to not go forward with the proposed budget cuts and the ordinance to go ahead with the fire inspection fees passed 5-2, with Nelson and Trustee Michelle Eckert opposed.
The motion to approve the fees will be discussed Nov. 12.
The money raised by inspection fees will go into the general fund, where it will then be allocated on a new full-time firefighter.
The board also gave the go-ahead for Five Bugles Design, the firm it contracted with for a space needs study, to move ahead with new fire station plans between $5 million and $5.2 million for a building with a brick exterior and reinforced steel interior for the proposed Fire Station No. 1.