Port panel calls for new west-side firehouse

Task force says Grand Ave. station would serve growing city, cost as much as $6 million
By 
KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM
Ozaukee Press staff

Port Washington’s fire station task force met Monday to finalize its findings for the city’s Police and Fire Commission, recommending after three months of study that the city should construct a new firehouse that is estimated to cost $4 million to $6 million on Grand Avenue west of Highway LL.

But the breakneck speed of the task force may slow down in the coming month as it presents its findings to the Police and Fire Commission and Common Council, which will not only have to decide whether to move ahead with the project but also how to fund it.

The task force will present its recommendation to the Police and Fire Commission when it meets on Monday, May 20.

The commission, which has voiced its support for a second fire station for years, is expected to endorse the plan and pass it on to the Common Council for consideration in June.

City Administrator Mark Grams said the council will likely refer the report to the Finance and License Committee for consideration, especially since the city will have to borrow for the station.

That cost could add about $92 annually to the city tax bill for a house assessed at $200,000, he said.

“That’s going to hit people hard,” Grams said. “At some point, you have to look at the financing and costs and what else the city has going on with roads and everything else it borrows for. There are other things out there.”

The city has been borrowing funds in alternate years, scheduling these borrowings to minimize the impact on the debt service budget, he said. This year, the city is expected to borrow about $2.5 million.

Grams said the council will have to look at whether it believes a satellite fire station or a primary facility, as recommended by the task force, should be built.

There’s no question the department needs more space, he said.

“For an ambulance, I can see it. For another truck or two, I can see it,” Grams said. “But do you build a full-fledged facility, I’m not quite sure.”  

But Mayor Marty Becker, who convened the task force and is a member, said this is the time to build a new fire station.

“I have no problem borrowing that kind of money for public safety,” he said, adding that the cost presented by the task force is a rough estimate. “Public safety is more important than other things we might need. Money is cheap to borrow right now. Let’s get it done.

“If you don’t do it now, when are you going to?”

He would like the council to move ahead immediately, selecting a site and hiring a firm to design the building and serve as a general contractor so construction could begin in spring. 

Task Force Chairman Jim Biever agreed the need for a new station is acute.

“The current station is lacking in so many areas,” he said. “Available land will be in short supply in the years to come, and interest rates are at an all-time low right now.

“I think we’ve proven the need. The important thing to remember is you’re building for the future, 50 years into the future.”

The number of fire calls has increased from 114 in 1992, when the station was last expanded, to 227 in 2018 and the number of ambulance calls from 499 in 1992 to 1,366 in 2018, according to the task force presentation.

When the current fire station was built in 1967, the department had 35 volunteers, five trucks and the city’s population was 8,500.

Today, there are 59 volunteers, in addition to the chief, 17 pieces of equipment and the population is 13,372.

The need for a new fire station has been discussed by the city for years, driven by the fact the current facility is cramped, inefficient and doesn’t have adequate facilities for women or paramedics.

Officials have talked of the need for a new facility west of the railroad tracks, saying they fear being cut off from residents on the city’s west side if a train were to derail.

Most firefighters also live on that side of the community, task force members said.

A new facility with adequate accommodations and amenities such as a workout room would also help the department attract and retain both volunteer and professional firefighters, task force members said.

“We’re in a competitive situation in hiring firefighters and EMTs,” Biever said.

The task force recommended building a firehouse that’s 15,000 to 20,000 square feet with five or six drive-through bays for vehicles, eight dorm rooms with locker facilities for men and women, a secure EMS supply area, dive team equipment storage area, offices for the chief and officers, conference and work-out areas and a training room that would double as a community room and fit 100 people with an adjoining kitchen.

That room should have a separate entrance so it could be used by the public or rented out.

The building should be energy efficient with a maintenance free exterior, and members said the city should look into the idea of installing solar panels to reduce energy costs.

The task force recommended  siting the firehouse on three to five acres, with its preferred site being the northwest corner of the Grand Avenue and Highway LL intersection — where Casey’s has proposed building a gas station and convenience store — and the second choice being the former Schanen farm on Grand Avenue at Jackson Road.

Because of an ongoing debate over whether Port Washington or Saukville should extend sewer service to the site, the task force said the new station could be built with a septic system or holding tank. Whenever the issue is resolved, they said, the fire station could hook up to the utility. 

Biever and Becker said they believe a firehouse could fit on either site with plenty of room for the Casey’s building or the baseball complex that’s been proposed for the Schanen farm by Port Youth Baseball.

This firehouse would become the city’s main fire station, members recommended, with the existing building downtown retained as a secondary facility.

There would be no need for additional equipment, they said, noting the current trucks and equipment would be split between the two buildings. 

However, they said, the existing firehouse would require upgrades that are not included in the cost estimate. 

And, they said, the new station would cost about $1,000 a month to operate.

Although there has been talk about making the firehouse a joint facility shared with Saukville, Biever and Becker said the city needs to concentrate on solving its own needs now.

“It would be great,” Becker said of a joint facility, adding that he doesn’t believe it will happen “right now.”

“We need a station to meet our needs now.”

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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