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Written by STEVE OSTERMANN   
Wednesday, 03 September 2014 19:14

Rice’s request for full-time staffer to help manage services gets cautious board response

Citing a need to expand fire inspections, bolster emergency response and develop public education programs, Grafton Fire Chief William Rice has asked the village to hire a full-time division chief for his department.

The new position, Rice told the Village Board on Tuesday, will help the department better meet state standards for inspection services, update an outdated fire code and support him in managing more than 50 part-time fire and emergency medical service responders.

“There is a problem in the fire department,” said Rice, who recently completed his first year as Grafton’s first full-time fire chief. “We are not meeting requirements.”

Rice said his department has been unable to keep pace with annual fire inspections, which this year total 1,460, up more than 420 from last year. In addition, the department is currently conducting 100 inspections for occupancy and fire-system certifications.

The state requires fire departments to complete commercial and multifamily inspections twice annually to be eligible for a 2% reimbursement of dues. Failure to do so “could cost us $60,000 annually,” Rice said.

In the past, the department has contracted for part-time inspection services but found that approach unreliable, Rice said. Inspections are currently done by part-time inspectors unable to keep up with the workload, he added.

In a report to the village’s Public Safety Commission, Rice recommended creating a division chief position to take over fire inspections, respond to day-time EMS calls, fire and other emergencies and oversee fire education and public information programs. He proposed a starting salary of $60,000 for the job, plus benefits, bringing the total cost to $90,013.

Rice said he conferred with more than 10 other fire departments to see how they handle inspections and concluded hiring a full-time inspector is the most cost-effective solution. In analyzing the department’s current budget for part-time and stipend pay, Rice said he determined there is “adequate funding to pay both salaries and benefits for this position in addition to the paid on-call wages.”

However, Village Board members were not quick to embrace Rice’s proposal.

Trustee Susan Meinecke questioned if a full-time division chief is needed.  “Why is the amount being paid out for stipends so low if the department is so busy?” she asked.

Meinecke and Trustee Jim Grant suggested more of the department’s volunteer members be trained to handle inspections and other duties.

“Can’t you incentivise them?” Meinecke asked Rice.

Rice said he has been cautious in spending department money and can’t simply hire department members for inspection services.

“It’s a specialized field. We need an expert,” he said.

Village President Jim Brunnquell said Rice’s request would have to be considered as a department request in the village’s annual budget workshop.

“If there is money that’s not being spent, the expectation is that we would reduce the levy to operate the budget,”  Brunnquell said.

Rice’s request was also questioned by Eric Grob, a former Grafton Fire Department member who attended the meeting. Grob said that when village and town residents passed a November 2012 referendum to hire a full-time fire chief, the expectation was that the job description included fire inspections.

Voters agreed to spend $410,000 more annually for the chief, to have part-time emergency medical technicians on call and provide per-call payments for firefighters and emergency medical responders. When Rice was hired in July 2013, he received a compensation package that included a starting salary of $78,000.

“What are we getting for our money if you’re not doing the inspections?” Grob asked Rice.

Rice said he is qualified to do fire inspections but has spent most of his first year on the job handling a variety of administrative duties — such as overseeing department operations, preparing a budget and working with village and town officials — in addition to responding to calls.

“I can assure you I’m one of the hardest-working village employees,” said Rice, who estimated that he puts in an average of 60 hours per week.

“I’m tied up with a tremendous workload. We have 1,200 (emergency) runs per year and only 1-1/2 full-time people on staff.”

The board took no action on Rice’s request, instead agreeing to table consideration of the proposal until this fall’s budget workshop, as Brunnquell suggested.


 

 
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