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Voters to decide whether Western Lakes Fire District gets $6.3M to address firefighter shortage

"Every day is a gamble,” Fire Chief Brad Bowen said.
Western Lakes Fire District.png
Posted at 5:06 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 19:36:21-04

OCONOMOWOC, Wis. — The Western Lakes Fire District says staffing shortages are endangering public safety. On Aug. 9, voters in seven municipalities will decide whether they’re willing to pay more property taxes to hire more first responders.

Currently, about 90 percent of the Western Lakes Fire District staff is part-time or on-call. The fire chief says it’s resulting in slow response times that could put lives in danger. If a referendum passes, an additional 33 full-time firefighters would be hired to fill that void.

The fire department that responded to two drownings within the past week on Lac La Belle says staffing shortages are creating a crisis in western Waukesha County.

"Every day is a gamble,” Fire Chief Brad Bowen said.

Chief Bowen says calls for service are up 74 percent. Meanwhile, he’s losing an average of 40 part-time employees each year.

"We've had employees say, ‘I can't do this anymore’ or ‘I can't come to calls after midnight because I have to be up and I have to function at my full-time job to put food on the table for my family,’” Chief Bowen said.

Chief Bowen says the problem is reflected in response times. It’s taking Western Lakes Fire District an average of 11 minutes and 14 seconds for a fire engine to arrive on scene, which is higher than the national standard of 9 minutes 90 percent of the time.

"As we know, a fire doubles every minute depending on what's burning, it could be doubling every 30 seconds,” he said. “Chances of survival and cardiac arrest, strokes, heart attacks, that is impacted by response times.”

A task force made up of fire officials and municipal leaders says the issue will take $6.3 million to solve, but that decision will be left up to voters in seven municipalities that receive the fire services. Those municipalities include the City of Oconomowoc, the Town of Oconomowoc, the Town of Merton, the Town of Ottawa, the Village of Lac La Belle, the Village of Summit and the Village of Dousman.

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If the referendum passes, City of Oconomowoc residents would pay an additional $80.10 in taxes for every $100,000 worth of property they own. That cost would double in the Village of Dousman.

"That's what breaks you, is the property taxes,” said Dousman resident Chris Kent. “They're going up and up and up every year in this little tiny town."

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The Dousman village president tells TMJ4 the reason their residents would be paying more is because their population is much smaller than the other municipalities and they have several large schools and non-profit businesses that are exempt.

Chris and Gary Kent did the math and it would cost them an extra $500 in taxes each year.

"As much as I'd like to say yes, I probably will say no because it's not equitable,” Gary said. “The cost per capita just isn't fair."

Western Lakes is far from the only community turning to referenda to pay for more firefighters. Chief Bowen says seven communities across the state asked voters for more fire resources in April and all of them passed.

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