West Allis - West Allis wants to cut administrative costs for the police and fire departments, but it's not going to be by combining chiefs.
The Common Council decided in a joint meeting with the West Allis Police and Fire Commission last week the city is simply too large to combine the two top jobs into one public safety officer position, a practice more common in smaller communities.
But that still leaves what some aldermen see as the original problem: The Fire Department has too many administrators.
"It's very clear the Fire Department is very top-heavy," said Alderman Michael Czaplewski, who said that aldermen "can't leave it the way it is" because the city has some tough budgets coming up.
Commission's trim task
In the end, the council left the task of trimming the department down with the Police and Fire Commission, the only body that can restructure the department.
Reminding the commission that the Common Council holds the purse strings, Alderman James Sengstock said that, at budget time, aldermen will want to see fewer supporting fire chiefs - battalion, deputy and assistant chiefs - or be assured that the commission has looked into those upper-end jobs with a plan to reduce the number.
"It's done in the private sector and we can do it in the public sector," Sengstock said.
Alderman Dan Roadt noted that the council has sent that message for the last two years and hasn't seen any action. He suggested a simpler solution.
If a fire chief is to be hired, the commission should just look for a candidate who says he can do the job with fewer supporting chiefs, Roadt said. Or it could just leave the current arrangement.
"Right now, we're chiefless and everything's working," Roadt said.
The commission will return to the council with cost-saving options, said commission president Joseph Kempen.
Acting Fire Chief Gary Streicher said that he clearly hears the message that aldermen want cost cuts, but he wanted them to know that the department hasn't been a spendthrift. Fire Department employees are on the low end of pay compared with other departments while West Allis is in line with other fire departments in other respects, he said.
Alderwoman Cathleen Probst agreed that the Fire Department is worth every dollar it gets and maybe even more. But the income of taxpayers is an important factor to be considered, she said.
"You have to limit public service salaries when you have a tax base that's losing their homes," she said.
Two top chiefs, not one
Because the city is in the unique position of having both police and fire chiefs retire at basically the same time, the council explored combining the two positions, as some communities have done.
But the conclusion aldermen derived from about 40 pages of staff research was that combined police and fire chiefs, generally known as "public safety officers," might work for smaller communities, but not cities the size of West Allis that have lots of calls.
Aldermen shared a concern about losing expertise in departments where life and death are at stake.
"The advantages, to me, are questionable," said Alderwoman Rosalie Reinke. "The chiefs in the past have done a very, very good job."
Alderman Gary Barczak said the professional specialized knowledge - such as that involving paramedics and emergency medical technicians among fire personnel - needed in both departments might be too much for one person.
Another concern was that a combined chief might just add a layer of administration instead of taking one away. If the city went with a combined police and fire chief, it would need extremely strong deputy chiefs to essentially run the departments, said Alderman Thomas Lajsic.
As an option of limiting the number of administrators, Alderman Michael May suggested one option is to develop a 10-year plan to combine with a neighboring fire department, as other communities have done.
Eventually combining departments had a certain appeal, but aldermen tended to favor a slower approach via sharing more services. That may evolve into combining departments, some said.
Barczak particularly expressed concern that combining with another department might mean West Allis would have to beef up its firefighter ranks, which are at the bare minimum.
On the revenue side, Barczak suggested that the city might have its highly trained department help other departments with their training. West Allis personnel already teach at MATC, he said.
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