Budget, staffing challenges force Wis. FD to skip July 4 parade

"I have less people to do more work" Waterford Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann said about finances and low career and volunteer staffing

By Scott Williams
The Journal Times

WATERFORD, Wis. — The Waterford Fire Department is dropping out of this year's Fourth of July parade, citing a staffing crunch blamed on inadequate funding and a shortage of volunteers.

Fire Chief Kevin Hafemann said he is not playing politics, but only responding to financial issues that have cut available manpower below levels needed to handle public safety emergencies.

"My hand is forced," Hafemann said.

For the first time in recent years, the fire department will not send trucks or firefighters to march in the July 4 holiday parade through Downtown Waterford.

Parade Chairman Scott Gunderson said while he understands the department's financial troubles, he feels disappointed that the holiday celebration will not include the community's firefighters.

"They've always been in the parade," Gunderson said. "I'd be lying if I said it wasn't a disappointment."

Sponsored by the Lions Club of Waterford, the parade scheduled for 11 a.m. July 4 starts on Main Street and continues down Milwaukee Avenue to Trailside Elementary School.

More than 100 floats and marching units are expected, including other area fire departments.

The Waterford Fire Department, based at 819 Mohr Ave., provides fire and ambulance service on a budget of more than $1 million a year.

Village records show the budget was reduced almost $150,000 this year from more than $1.4 million to less than $1.3 million, and that property tax support was cut from $829,949 to $758,272.

Village officials, however, contend that when other revenues are included, the fire department is getting a budget increase, up to $1.5 million.

Village President Don Houston said he recognizes that the department is being squeezed by outside forces — including a shortage of volunteers — and he does not fault the chief for pulling out of the parade.

"That's his call, and I will support him in that," Houston said. "I think public safety is more important than putting flags in a parade."

The same issues impacting Waterford firefighters have hit other area fire departments, prompting ongoing discussion about combining forces. Racine County officials are studying the issues, too, and encouraging consolidation talks.

Hafemann, a former Milwaukee Fire Department official, took over as Waterford chief last October.

A growing community with inadequate financial support from the village, he said, has exasperated the shortage of volunteer firefighters. At the same time the department is being forced to put more firefighters on the payroll, dwindling revenues are making it increasingly difficult.

The department currently includes four full-time and 35 part-time firefighters. Staffing at the firehouse has been trimmed to three people on weekdays and two on weeknights and weekends.

Those staffing levels are half of what they were last year, Hafemann said. At times, Waterford now must wait for mutual-aid departments to respond before crews can enter a burning building or begin extrication from a traffic crash, he said.

Under those circumstances, the chief said, he cannot justify sending firefighters to march in a Fourth of July parade, knowing they could be needed for an emergency at any moment.

"I'm not doing it to be mean or to prove a point," he said. "I have less people to do more work. I'm in a tight spot."

The department will have an ambulance at the parade site, as always, to help with any medical emergency.

Houston said the village's goal is to maintain an around-the-clock fire department, which he said is being accomplished at the current staffing levels. The objective is to keep the community safe, Houston said.

"Everybody's definition of that is different," he said. "We don't have unlimited money. So there's got to be a balance there."

(c)2023 The Journal Times, Racine, Wisc.
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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