The Oshkosh Common Council got the sobering details of how eliminating five firefighters next year could ripple through hundreds of emergency calls each year during its second budget workshop Tuesday night.
Oshkosh Fire Chief Tim Franz said the elimination of five of the six positions that staff the Heavy Rescue 15 truck would likely result in delayed response times, increased insurance premiums for businesses and even more work from a staff already stretched thin.
“It’s a domino effect of less availability which creates longer response times which creates poorer incident outcomes,” Franz said. “It may not happen in the first month, but over time, I think we’ll see some trends in increases in dollar loss, our ability to contain fires and valuing life over property.”
The problem is that there’s nothing else left to cut in the fire department. Ninety-four percent of the department’s $11.1 million budget goes to salaries and benefits.
The five positions, currently vacant, represent the largest cut in City Manager Mark Rohloff’s proposed 2014 budget at $360,000. They’re also half of the 10 positions that would be cut, requiring three layoffs, from all departments.
Only the $1.1 million tax levy increase proposed to help close a $2.7 million shortfall has a larger fiscal impact than eliminating five of the six positions that staff the Oshkosh Fire Department’s Heavy Rescue vehicle.
“Every single cut we have will have implications,” Rohloff said. “You can’t cut corners at the fire department. (But) the reality is there had to be something cut.”
The proposed increase in the tax levy already would push the tax rate from $8.94 per $1,000 of assessed value to $9.20.
Retaining the five positions purely through increasing spending would add another 10 cents, likely raising the rate to $9.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value.
Even Rohloff himself noted that Franz made a good case to keep the five firefighters, but said he was not sure what Councilors’ tolerance would be for raising taxes.
“The city is saving money, but we’d essentially shift an insurance cost onto our business community,” Councilor Kyle Clark said. “So we’ll save them money on their taxes, but not on their insurance costs. It’s a question we have to get to.”
That question will have to be answered in late November when the budget will be adopted.
On Tuesday, Franz provided details about how other communities have dealt with the absence of a heavy rescue vehicle to carry equipment and firefighters necessary to properly respond to everything from car accidents to house fires.
But many rely on mutual aid from abutting communities (Neenah/Menasha, Green Bay) that Oshkosh cannot lean on or different staffing levels due to different levels of service provided (Appleton doesn’t provide ambulance service), making them tough to accurately compare.
Franz said the department would continue to have to do more with less. And that means slower response times when calls overlap and ordering firefighters to take weekend special event shifts because not enough volunteer for the additional work and overtime.
Oshkosh Police Chief Scott Greuel also noted that his staff has started to have to fill additional shifts required by special events by ordering officers to work. The increased demand special events puts on public safety personnel was one of the few things Councilors questioned in Greuel’s budget.