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Minocqua Fire Department’s Budget Sparks Dismay

Minocqua Fire Department

MINOCQUA – A Minocqua Fire and Rescue Department official said it “was a slap in the face” after the town board refused to add additional money to the fire department’s budget for 2020 and to make the fire chief a full time, paid position.

Charlie Ouimette, a 39-year member and captain of the volunteer department, made the comment during last week’s annual town meeting where the levy was approved. “I’m disappointed in the board,” said the captain, who added that the department prides itself on how frugal it has been over the years in requesting taxpayer funding.

Ouimette wanted the board to add $15,000 to the department’s budget to offset costs of training new members. He also wanted the one-time allocation of $20,000 for air packs in 2019 rolled over to the 2020 budget. A full-time chief position would allow that person to get caught up on inspecting the town’s commercial buildings, he said.

Town chairman responds

Town Chairman Mark Hartzheim replied that the requests were made a “couple of months ago” during budget preparations and that the board “was not ready to support the new position.” Afterwards, he elaborated that creating a new position requires considerable thought, including possible alternatives and public input.

Former Fire Chief Andy Petrowski had asked the town board to add $24,000 to the department’s budget for a full-time chief. However, that amount would not have included a benefit package, which full time town employees receive. The town currently pays $22,000 for its share of a family insurance policy, for instance. Nor were the fire department representatives willing to consider anything less than a full time fire chief, the town chairman replied. “Your roster has nothing to do whether it’s a full time chief,” he told Ouimette, who said the department is struggling with a severe drop in volunteers.

As to the inspection workload, Hartzheim said that while the state requires inspections of commercial buildings twice a year, there is an exception if the governing body passes an ordinance stipulating that only one annual inspection is required. The training program for new fire department members statewide is supported by a funding source comprised of 2 percent of all fire insurance premiums underwritten in the state. Hartzheim said the board was “open” to additional reimbursement for training costs.

The 2020 town budget lists $109,750 for the fire department, down from $138,075 in 2019 and just under the $112,475 budgeted for 2018. The 2020 budget includes $45,000 for salaries for the volunteers. The fire chief currently receives $3,500 a year for his duties. Ouimette said his stipend doesn’t cover “the gas running to the fire barn,” much less the 172 fire calls and meetings that the volunteers respond to each year. Although the electors can make motions to approve or change the levy, none were made that night.

By way of explanation, the town is at its maximum levy limitations, so a motion to raise the levy to accommodate a paid fire chief position would have been out of order. Plus, the board has full control on how the budget dollars are allocated.

Membership numbers dropping

Ouimette said the department is “in dire straits” with a membership roster that has plummeted in half since the enactment of a new state law that requires substantial more training hours for new firefighters. Part A of Entry-Level Firefighter requires completion of a 30-hour course; Part B requires an additional 30-hour course. The regular membership roster at Station #1 (Minocqua) is currently at 18, down from 40 just a year ago, Ouimette said. Similarly, Station #2 (Bo-di-Lac) is currently at 6 members, down from 10. The captain noted that over half of the Station #1 members live outside of Minocqua. He said the department has no money to do recruiting.

Ouimette warned that if the fire department doesn’t meet certain standards, it would put the town’s insurance rating at risk. Insurance Services Office, or ISO, is a company that conducts those evaluations all over the country. It rates fire departments on a 1 to 10 scale, with 1 being the best and 10 equaling a failing grade. A substantial drop could mean $186,000 in additional property insurance premiums overall for owners, Ouimette warned. Hartzheim said one of the selling points that the fire department supporters made in seeking a new firehouse a few years ago was that it would bring in new volunteers and boost morale among current members.

The town spent over $3 million to build the new station, which opened last year, he said. “Everybody up here,” he said of the town board, “appreciates very much what the volunteer fire department members do, the sacrifices they make (and) the services provided.”

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