Fire chief’s plea for help goes unanswered

Council doesn’t add funds to budget for full-time paramedics even though Mitchell calls situation dire
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington Fire Chief Mark Mitchell, who last week reported that he didn’t have enough emergency medical technicians to staff the ambulance for the better part of two days, on Tuesday asked the Common Council to find the money in the 2021 budget to hire two more full-time paramedics.

“We are facing a dire staffing shortage of paramedics,” Mitchell told aldermen. “We must find a way to sustain the all important paramedic level of service.”

Aldermen didn’t change the budget to add financing for two more positions, but City Administrator Tony Brown told the council that he is working on a plan that might provide funding for one full-time paramedic for two or three years.

“Unfortunately, the city’s in a position where I don’t know if we have the financial resources (to add permanent staff in 2021),” Brown said.

During those two to three years, he said, the city would have the time to try and find a way to fund more staff members permanently.

He’s still working on his plan, Brown said, adding he hopes to present it to aldermen in December.

The 2021 budget does provide funds for a staffing study of the fire department, Brown added, and this will identify the issues involved in hiring as well as options to staff the department. 

“In the meantime, I encourage the Police and Fire Commission to look at how to recruit to fill the current position to help alleviate some concerns,” Brown said.

The ambulance discussion took up the bulk of the public hearing on the proposed budget. Only Mitchell and Mayor Marty Becker spoke during the hearing.

Becker, who weighed in on the ambulance staffing, also passed on a comment from Ken Jensen, who lives in the city but could not attend Tuesday’s hearing.

Becker said Jensen, who has spoken out against installing sidewalks in the neighborhoods near Upper Lake Park,  “doesn’t understand why you want to build new sidewalks when you can’t take care of the existing damaged sidewalks.”

Funds for the sidewalks to Upper Lake Park are included in the proposed capital outlay budget for 2021.

During the Finance and License Committee meeting prior to the council meeting, Police Captain Mike Davel also asked the city to increase the number of body cameras it is buying next year from the 10 budgeted to the 19 needed to provide each officer with his own body camera.

“These things are life insurance for the city,” Davel said, adding he “can’t quantify” the number of complaints settled after the department shows people the footage it has.

“The police department is your single greatest risk of lawsuits,” he noted.

The body cameras would replace the 10 cameras the department currently has that are old and becoming obsolete.

But the ambulance was the primary topic of Tuesday’s budget  hearing, with Mitchell making his case that the city needs to adequately staff the ambulance.

“I’ve always believed a combination with our current active members and three full-time positions would adequately staff our ambulance now and beyond,”  he said.

Port has budgeted one full-time firefighter/paramedic position, but Mitchell said the two people he’s hired to fill that position both left shortly after they began work.

If the city can’t keep one full-time firefighter/paramedic, Ald. Pat Tearney asked, how would it fill more positions?

“How are we going to fill two, I’m kind of wondering,” he said. “This is something I obviously think is important. We’ve had problems keeping that position filled.”

The Police and Fire Commission are talking about dropping the firefighter portion of the full-time duties, Mitchell said, and perhaps adjusting the salary or looking at the residency requirements.

“We’re trying to be competitive,” he said.  “There are things we can probably massage and make it more attractive to potential candidates.”

The shortage of staff affects not just Port Washington but other municipalities as well, Mitchell said. Other municipal ambulance services that have to fill in for Port can’t respond to their own emergencies when they’re here.

Mitchell’s call for help was echoed by Becker, who noted that when the city started its paramedic service there was little debate. But, he added, it takes staff to make it work. 

“It’s a better level of service which the people of Port Washington deserve,” Becker said, asking the Common Council to fund the additional staff members.

“Somehow, if you guys could find the money I would appreciate it. I think the citizens of Port would appreciate it,” he said. “I really believe we need two.”

  Becker noted that he hopes the city will hold a referendum to finance a new fire station soon, and perhaps funding for the positions could be included in that measure.

Aldermen unanimously approved the  $9,969,340 2021 operating budget and the corresponding $3.5 million tax levy.

Since the city’s debt service levy is decreasing by about $38,000 and the city’s assessed value has increased about $20 million due to new construction, the tax rate will decrease 11 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, Brown said.

The proposed tax rate would be $6.60 per $1,000 compared to $6.71 last year, he said.


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