City’s qualms about paying a share of Water Safety Patrol costs should not be allowed to compromise a service that is essential to the county’s only lake port
The adage recommending that sleeping dogs not be disturbed can apply to boats. The Port Washington Harbor Commission woke up the issue of funding the county rescue boat at a recent meeting, and it could come back to bite.
Funding the Ozaukee County Water Safety Patrol and its rescue vessel has been the subject of a controversy so heated it threatened the very existence of the service a number of times. That settled down after the City of Port Washington agreed to contribute $10,000 a year toward rescue boat operation costs.
Now it seems the city is experiencing some buyer’s remorse, aggravated by financial challenges that are said to be making budgeting for the coming year particularly difficult. There was talk at a recent Harbor Commission meeting of reducing or ending the rescue boat subsidy.
If this leads to renegotiation of the rescue boat funding arrangement, it should be with the understanding by everyone involved that this is an essential life-saving service, not some sort of government-funded amenity or convenience that could be sacrificed to balance a budget.
The rescue boat is stationed in Port Washington. Unlike the two nearest Lake Michigan ports, Milwaukee and Sheboygan, there is no U.S. Coast Guard presence in Port Washington. People in trouble on the water often don’t have the option of waiting for a Coast Guard vessel to traverse the 25 miles from its nearest base. They need the Ozaukee County rescue boat. Sometimes their lives depend on it.
The Water Safety Patrol, whose proficiency is widely respected by the boating public, has numerous rescues to its credit. One of the most dramatic occurred in 2011 when the rescue boat and its crew, in extremely threatening conditions, saved two men who were clinging for their lives to the Port Washington lighthouse under a furious assault of gale-driven waves. The rescue boat was their last hope. They would surely have perished without it.
The Water Safety Patrol operates under the aegis of the Ozaukee County Sheriff’s Department division of emergency management, and it is a logical association. People from all over the county who access Lake Michigan at Port Washington, the county’s only port, stand to benefit from the rescue service. The County Board supervisors who for several years in succession tried to strip rescue boat funding from the county budget apparently missed that.
The city’s offer then of a cash contribution, in addition to in-kind support consisting of docking space and $1,500 worth of fuel for the rescue boat each season, was key to resolving the issue, but beyond that it was the right thing to do. Port Washington is a direct beneficiary of the rescue boat service.
The city, with help from the federal and state governments, provides the splendid facilities available to boaters in the county’s lake port, but it also reaps big rewards from them. The lakefront is the city’s biggest tourist attraction. The boat owners who launch their boats or rent slips in Port every year and the customers of the Port Washington charter boat fleet, one of the biggest on Lake Michigan, altogether pump millions into the city economy with their spending for food, lodging and retail purchases. The rescue boat is an essential element of the boating facilities that drive this business.
The marina itself is a profit maker for the city, and it is fitting that the rescue boat stipend comes from its revenues.
It was suggested at the Harbor Commission meeting that the city contribution to the rescue boat is questionable because some of the people rescued by the service are not city taxpayers.
There is no merit to that surprisingly pinched view. Most people understand that life-saving services don’t work that way. When lives are at risk, the addresses of those needing rescue don’t matter.
The Harbor Commission’s misgivings came too late to affect 2016 rescue boat funding. If the issue is raised for subsequent years, city and county officials should by all means talk about it with a view toward settling on an equitable long-term rescue boat funding arrangement. But failing to fund the service cannot be an option.