Sunday, December 4th, 2016

Great googly-moogly! The city budget’s on fire!

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I don’t know why anyone was surprised by the sudden hole in the City of Waukesha budget. Pete Kennedy in the Waukesha Freeman wrote that the city’s hope for a federal grant to pay for the firefighters for the new station fell through.

And looking back, Mayor Larry Nelson and the Waukesha Common Council were wrong (or at least most of them).

The city received word a few days ago that federal funding had fallen through for salaries and fringe benefits of nine new firefighters. The city had counted on a grant for $500,000 to cover most of the $659,000 in new salaries.

The firefighters are being added to staff a new fire station on the city’s west side. That station, near Summit Avenue and Merrill Hills Road, is being built as we speak. In fact, the city borrowed about $4.5 million for building and equipping the station. (That figure doesn’t include the dreaded salaries.)

So we have a fire station going up – as the grant falls through. All of a sudden we have a $500,000 hole in the 2009 city budget. That’s a big hit for Waukesha.

What will the city do? Nelson and City Administrator Lori Curtis Luther don’t seem to have a whole lot of ideas. Cutting jobs in other areas of the city might be a possibility.

“If we have to find $500,000 above the cost increases we’re seeing for gas and snowplowing, worst case scenario is that it equates to seven city employees,” said Steve Neaman, city finance manager. That means we’d get nine new firefighters – and employees in other city departments would lose their jobs. (But I bet those who oversold the grant will still be gainfully employed.)

Mayor Nelson responded like he just lost his best friend.

One of the reasons I respect Pete Kennedy as a columnist is that he has actually taken the time to interview or talk to me to get the facts before he writes his opinion column. {I thought it was because Kennedy endorsed Nelson for re-election two years before his term ends. – JW} Unfortunately, that was not the case in his Saturday Freeman column about a federal grant to help staff the new fire station on the northwest side of the city where Pete jumped to several conclusions that are simply not true.

Pete stated that “The city had counted on a grant for $500,000 to cover most of the $659,000 in new salaries.” Waukesha never “counted on” the grant. It was clearly stated when the new fire station was voted on, and again when the grant was discussed, that the cost of the new firefighters would have to be covered in the 2009 budget, and that even if we were fortunate enough to receive the grant, the city would need to decide how to cover the cost in future city budgets.

Unfortunately, the mayor is right. The city passed then-City Administrator Jim Payne’s budget with the full expectation that the city would have to go to referendum to fund the staffing of the fire station. I tried warning Waukesha in 2006, and I would be doing my “I Told You So” Cha-Cha if I wasn’t one of the poor unfortunates who will be stuck paying for this planned disaster.

We’re going to spend every cent we can – and then some. He even proposes a new fire station in the budget with no plan for paying for the staff other than raising taxes further (if the state caps are lifted) or going to referendum to raise taxes (if the state caps are not lifted). The taxpayers (unmentioned by City Administrator Payne) might be unhappy to learn the proposed site of the new fire station is 1.17 miles away from a City of Pewaukee fire station. The village of Wales has a fire station five miles to the west and the town of Waukesha has a fire station five miles to the south.

My idea of reaching out to neighboring communities was attacked at the time, but somehow the Lake Country can consolidate it’s fire department. Now we’re stuck trying to figure out how to pay for our new firemen.

A referendum is not going to work. You can’t just TIF a fire station. So pick seven city employees you want to let go. Unfortunately Jim Payne is in New Mexico.

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