Wis. municipalities still waiting after 22 years for fire-EMS district

Heated disagreements between fire and municipal officials have left a proposed consolidation plan in limbo


Jonathon Sadowski
The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

WATERFORD, Wis. — Elected officials from the Village and Town of Waterford and the Village of Rochester agree: A joint fire and emergency medical services district would benefit all three municipalities.

But at least 22 years after a consolidated department was first proposed, the chance of a district for these western Racine County communities appears further off than ever. Local officials have failed to make any tangible progress and intergovernmental relations are rapidly deteriorating.

Proposals to consolidate a fire-EMS district between the Village and Town of Waterford and the Village of Rochester have been in talks for 22 years, but a decision has not yet been made. (Photo/Village of Waterford Fire Department Facebook)
Proposals to consolidate a fire-EMS district between the Village and Town of Waterford and the Village of Rochester have been in talks for 22 years, but a decision has not yet been made. (Photo/Village of Waterford Fire Department Facebook)

And as politics get in the way of progress, citizens are the ones who could pay the ultimate price.

Why unify?

Consolidated departments carry the benefit of reduced costs, unified training and response methods and better response times because jurisdictional borders are removed from the equation. Sturtevant and Mount Pleasant combined their fire departments in 2009 to form the South Shore Fire Department for those very reasons.

Waterford-area officials have at least taken notice of the potential benefits. In 1997, Frank Price, Rochester’s then fire chief, wrote a letter advocating for a district. Fourteen years after that, the Village and Town of Waterford jointly paid for an independent study to determine whether they should consolidate their departments into a fire district. The answer was a clear-cut “yes.”

Even after the study, nothing happened.

Racine County is not the only place where these discussions are happening. Fire districts are becoming increasingly common — whether in the form of full consolidations or joint services — with thousands already functioning nationwide, according to a 2017 Illinois Municipal Policy Journal article.

“It’s very hard to say why you shouldn’t (consolidate) at times,” said Tim McGrath, a former Brookfield, Wis., and Gurnee, Ill., fire chief and current CEO of Illinois-based McGrath Consulting Group, which consulted for Mount Pleasant and Sturtevant’s department merger.

Local officials have pointed to the fire departments’ dysfunction as a reason for the lack of a fire district, but Waterford Fire Chief Rick Mueller has a different perspective.

“This whole discussion … is not about how two fire chiefs can’t get along,” Mueller said. “This is about our elected officials — our village governments and town governments — not getting along. And now they’re projecting that down to us as fire chiefs.”

Rochester proposal

Waterford Village President Don Houston this summer sent a fire district proposal to the Town of Waterford and Village of Rochester. The offer promised to halve the cost the other municipalities paid their volunteer companies and maintain that price for five years.

The joint department would have been renamed the Fox Area Fire Department — after the Fox River, which runs through all three municipalities — and been governed by an independent board with two representatives from each municipality — similar to the way Union Grove and Yorkville have long overseen their shared fire department.

On June 5, the Waterford and Rochester boards were set to meet to discuss the proposal, and it appeared as if the meeting held the potential for a fruitful discussion.

The meeting never happened.

Just two days before municipal leaders were supposed to come together, the meeting was abruptly canceled. Memorandums and emails obtained through open-records requests illustrate how vitriol from both communities’ leaders set the discussion up to fail.

A week before the planned meeting, on May 29, Houston and Waterford Village Administrator Zeke Jackson went unannounced to speak with Rochester Fire Chief Jack Biermann at the Rochester fire station to talk about forming a fire district.

It didn’t go well.

Biermann said a district “was never going to happen” while Waterford’s current Fire Department command staff was in place, he wrote in a memo to the Rochester Village Board. From there, the meeting devolved into a shouting match, according to his account.

Biermann ended the memo by threatening to have Jackson and Houston arrested for trespassing if they returned. Jackson and Houston’s responses did little to instill hope that discussions would resume.

“I don’t feel that Chief Biermann is of the psychological state to be able to rationally comprehend or process information,” Jackson wrote in a May 31 email to the entire Waterford Village Board. “I believe he is consumed with anger, is moral-less, and is motivated by self-aggrandizement rather than selflessness and service to the residents of Racine County … I genuinely fear for my family. My personal safety, and that of my daughter and cousin.”

Jackson then directed Mueller to have his department “disregard command from County Dispatch” and overstep its jurisdiction to respond directly to Jackson’s home in Rochester in the case of an emergency.

Houston slammed Biermann in a June 3 memo to Rochester officials, saying: “I have never met someone with such unwillingness and an uncompassionate attitude in the fire service.”

In response, Rochester officials canceled the joint meeting due to the “recent tension” between the three men.

Nothing has changed since then. Houston brought the proposal back to the Rochester board in October and it was unanimously voted down.

“As with any district, no matter where it is, it needs to be on everybody’s terms, not one person calling the shots, trying to strong-arm the other ones into it and a contract,” Biermann said in an interview. “I guess it hasn’t been on everybody’s terms.”

Town of Waterford proposal

In late August, the Town of Waterford Board canceled its long-standing fire/EMS protection contract with the village.

As a result, beginning Jan. 1, about 1,000 Town of Waterford homes in the southern half of the town will no longer have 24/7 paramedic EMS coverage. Instead, the area will be covered by the Tichigan and Rochester fire companies, which are not staffed full-time.

It was a remarkable turnaround. Earlier this year, Town Chairman Tom Hincz requested a fire district proposal from the village, and Houston extended the town the same offer he gave Rochester.

“Some people are going to be very skeptical if they (Tichigan and Rochester) can really respond as quickly as Waterford Fire and Rescue that’s only a mile or two away,” Town Supervisor Dale Gauerke said.

In some parts of the coverage area — such as the Waterford Woods subdivision just northwest of Downtown Waterford — first responders from Rochester will have to drive past the Waterford fire station and along the entire length of Jefferson Street in Waterford.

“There’s a delay in getting a paramedic ambulance to that call because of a border,” Mueller said.

At the time of the vote, Hincz said the Town Board’s decision was a reaction to the village’s plans to annex some town property. Gauerke later expressed regret of the vote, cautioning his fellow board members that if it was not reversed, it could “destroy our relationship with the village for a generation to come.”

After Jackson wrote a memo calling the town government “a form of Totalitarian Dictatorship” earlier this month, Gauerke said his fear of irreparable relations had become a reality.

“I think we are probably at that point now,” Gauerke said.

Major support, but no agreement

Despite the animosity between the Village of Waterford and its neighbors, officials in all three still support a theoretical fire district.

“I think in the long term, it will be inevitable,” Hincz said. “And I would support that. The issue is, who owns what turf and who runs this thing?”

And it’s the same in Waterford.

“The board still very much supports the idea of a district,” Jackson said.

Rochester Village President Ed Chart said he has tried to create a district for years and would still like to.

“We’ll see what we can get going here, and hopefully we can get it done sooner than later,” Chart said.

Mueller said a fire district would only help public safety and “eliminate the border war.”

Second of two parts

This story details how Waterford-area officials have failed to form a fire district despite 22 years of discussion. To learn how struggles between the fire departments have contributed to the failure, please see find the story online at JournalTimes.com.

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©2019 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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