RACINE — A house fire Thursday that killed two children has some city aldermen calling for more Fire Department funding and one alderman saying the department chief should spend his budgeted dollars differently.
The deadly fire comes in the midst of a city budget season that’s featured a proposal from city administration to cut Racine Fire Department funding by $420,000 for next year. With that hit to his budget, Fire Chief Steve Hansen has said he would have to close one of the city’s six fire stations and cut three firefighter/paramedics from the department’s 141 total staff, which includes a secretary and clerk/typist.
When 15th District Alderman Robert Mozol first heard the budget proposal, he was “against it all the way.” Now, after Thursday’s fire, he finds the idea of cutting the Fire Department budget even more “absurd, to put it mildly,” he said.
Mozol is working with some other aldermen, whom he would not name, to move dollars around and maintain Fire Department funding, he said.
Likewise, 3rd District Alderman Michael Shields said he’s trying to find funds in other city departments to cut so Fire Station No. 5, 2430 Blaine Ave., remains in operation.
“As a city, we do face financial crisis but we just can’t afford to lose the important services like our public safety services,” said Shields, whose aldermanic district includes 1916 Linden Ave., where Thursday’s fire occurred.
Sixth District Alderman Sandy Weidner also wants to maintain fire services — and the Blaine Avenue station — but said doing so doesn’t just come down to dollars.
“We the council can set somebody’s budget. How they choose to use that budget is up to the department head, so the fire chief has the choice of cutting three (firefighters) or finding someplace else to cut,” Weidner said.
Her mother died in a Mount Pleasant house fire in 2004 so she knows having quick, well-staffed fire departments can make a difference — “She may have not died had a rescue squad come from someplace closer,” Weidner said — but she still doesn’t think the City Council should maintain Fire Department funding given the total city money available.
She suggests Hansen cut fire inspectors instead of first-responding firefighters and have staff do more fire safety inspections of businesses to bring in revenue and increase overall city safety, she said.
“Fire or no fire, I do not support the direction the chief is going, although I do understand and empathize with the predicament the mayor and the city administrator’s request” puts him in, Weidner said.
But when asked if he could find a way to keep staff and the fire station with a funding cut, Hansen said, “No!” He also said eliminating fire inspectors would shift fire safety education duties and 1,200 required inspections to other staff, who don’t have time.
Hansen added the loss of staff and the station will mean longer response times and having other stations pick up “the 800-plus emergency calls (Station) 5 has responded to so far in 2012.”
Station 5 was not the closest to Thursday’s fire, nor was its engine first on the scene. But the fire required a “full on-duty” response of 31 fire personnel — plus assistance from neighboring departments. If Station 5 hadn’t existed, more aid from nearby departments would have been needed, and that would have taken longer, Hansen said.
“Remember we had children trapped in the building and firefighters going down from exhaustion,” he said. “We would have been forced to wait longer for additional emergency assistance and potentially the outcome could have been more deadly.”
Mayor John Dickert and 11th District Alderman Greg Helding said funding choices can’t be based on one instance or worst-case scenario, though.
“Obviously we had a tragedy in our city, but we don’t make our decisions based on any one event,” Dickert said. When the budget process began this summer, the city was facing a $4 million budget deficit in part because of increased health care expenses, higher animal control costs and reduced revenue.
“We’re going to have to cut police and fire,”
Dickert said. “We have no choice.”
City leaders have to weigh priorities, Helding said, and “yes, life is a priority. But say we cut public works in order to fund the shortfall with the (fire) department, then we could face a situation like the Groundhog Day blizzard (and) not have the road crews.”
Helding added, “(Thursdays’ fire) is heart-wrenching but, at the same time, we spent the money we have now and we weren’t able to save those kids.”
A public hearing on the city budget will be held at 6 p.m. Monday at City Hall, 730 Washington Ave. The budget should be finalized later this month.
Correction: The address of Racine’s Fire Station 5 was incorrect. The error has been corrected.