GFD vote shows strong support for replacing volunteer service with municipal operation overseen by full-time chief
Grafton firefighters have voted in favor of replacing the 115-year-old volunteer service with a municipally operated department that would have paid on-call members and a full-time chief.
Fire Chief John Place said Tuesday that â€śan overwhelming majorityâ€ť of several dozen department members who attended a special meeting April 21 supported the plan.
â€śWe met to discuss issues and concerns, and determined that there should be changes in how the department operates,â€ť Place said.
â€śItâ€™s getting harder and harder to find volunteers. Thatâ€™s been an ongoing problem. Weâ€™ve got a large staff, but fewer and fewer are available on evenings and weekends, and thereâ€™s a lot more for everyone to do.â€ť
The department has traditionally been hired by the Village and Town of Grafton to provide services, with contacts renewed annually.
This year, the village will pay the department $498,476 for fire protection and inspection, emergency medical services, hazardous materials control and public safety education. The town will pay $195,479.
Place said his department has 84 members, but only 60 to 65 are available for active duty. He believes having a paid on-call incentive would bolster recruitment efforts.
â€śItâ€™s a dedicated staff, but most of them donâ€™t live in the village anymore,â€ť he said. â€śWe operate as a private corporation, unlike a lot of communities that have full-time chiefs and paid firefighters.â€ť
Burgeoning commercial and residential development in the village during the past 10 years has placed increasing demand on department services, Place noted.
â€śWeâ€™re growing faster than just about every other community, but we still have an all-volunteer staff,â€ť he said. â€śGrafton is no different in size than Port Washington, but they have a full-time chief.â€ť
Place said the departmentâ€™s plan would require voter approval on a referendum before it could be implemented in the village or town. Before then, the proposal would require review by each municipality â€” a step that hasnâ€™t been taken, he added.
â€śWeâ€™ve only started discussing it informally,â€ť Place said.
Grafton Village Administrator Darrell Hofland declined to comment on the department vote, noting â€śthe village has not received an official notice of a possible organizational change.â€ť
In a prepared statement, Hofland said the village â€śrecognizes the need and the responsibility of the Grafton Volunteer Fire Department to evaluate not only the level of services it provides but how best to provide these critical services.â€ť
Grafton Town Chairman Lester Bartel said he isnâ€™t surprised by the departmentâ€™s vote.
â€śIâ€™ve been kind of expecting this for quite some time,â€ť Bartel said.
â€śOur fire department has provided outstanding firefighting and rescue service for many years, but asking volunteers to do it forever is just not reasonable. Times have changed, and itâ€™s something we need to talk about.â€ť
Bartel said town officials would take a careful look at department needs and the financial impact before determining the feasibility of the plan.
â€śI donâ€™t believe the added cost would be excessive, but we have to look at everything,â€ť he said.
â€śI have complete confidence that John and the rest of his department have the best interest of the community at heart and will present their case fairly.â€ť
Place, a 24-year department member who has served as chief since December 2009, said he recognizes the difficult financial challenges being faced by the village and town â€” and how spending constraints could make the changes difficult to
â€śThe timing for this is not the greatest with the budget problems, and we know that,â€ť he said. â€śBut itâ€™s also a public safety issue that affects every resident and business and needs to be looked at seriously.â€ť
Even if a referendum would fail, the department is not going to disband, Place said.
â€śWeâ€™re not going anywhere, but weâ€™re trying to plan for the future,â€ť he said. â€śWe just feel itâ€™s time for a change.â€ť