OCONOMOWOC — As the Aug. 9 partisan primary vote looms, a Western Lakes Fire District referendum is seeking to nearly double the district's budget in order to address reported staffing issues associated with its paid on-call employment model.
WLFD Chief Brad Bowen says relying on part-time and on-call responders leads to increased response times that can lead to property damage and loss of life. He said five to seven minutes could be shaved off response times if the referendum is successful.
That would save lives and property, Bowen said. “There's going to be a return on the investment,” Bowen told The Enterprise. “They (area municipalities) will see a higher level of care not just for fire, but for medical emergencies. The experience level will go up ... and we'll be able to retain the people who know the area, know the roads.”
He also said the district's current wage levels can't compete with area fast food restaurants and other places of employment like gas stations.
In order for the referendum to succeed, the majority of voters in all municipalities that receive fire protection from the WLFD would need to approve it. That includes the Town of Merton, Town of Oconomowoc, Town of Ottawa, Village of Dousman, Village of Lac La Belle, Village of Summit and Oconomowoc.
But not everyone is convinced that the referendum is a necessary measure.
Mapleton resident Pat Agnew was a member of the now-dissolved Stone Bank Fire Department for 25 years. He is opposed to increasing the district's budget and said the proposal asks for too much money to be spent on salaries for interns and a fire inspector. The district said it currently spends 80% of its budget on salaries and personnel benefits, and most of the $6.3 million ask would go towards the same.
“It seems like it's an overkill, how much money they want, as far as how much they're going to pay people,” Agnew told The Enterprise last month.
If the referendum does succeed on Aug. 9, an additional $6.3 million would be added to the district's current $6.8 million budget to address the staffing issues by hiring full-time and inhouse staff.
That extra money would be raised by increasing property taxes in those seven municipalities and would add 33 firefighters/ paramedics, 15 paid internship positions, three battalion chiefs, a fire inspector and an administrative assistant.
By the numbers, annual property taxes would be affected differently depending on the individual municipality. For every $100,000 in assessed property value, an additional $80.10 in tax would be added on in Oconomowoc, $66.24 in the Town of Merton, $62.65 in the Town of Oconomowoc, $77.23 in the Town of Ottawa, $160.14 in the Village of Dousman, $74.30 in the Village of Lac La Belle and $82.47 in the Village of Summit.