Wisconsin Firefighters Protest State Budget Cuts

The state of Wisconsin is experiencing a budget crisis. It is looking at a $1.1 billion deficit and has proposed eliminating state aid in the form of shared revenues. Such a move would affect every locality in the state and would have repercussions for fire departments as well as other public service agencies. Governor Scott McCallum has suggested cutting $350 million in 2002, $360 million in 2003 and the remainder of shared revenues (to reach $1 billion) in 2004, according a WISC Channel13000.com.

On March 12, approximately 900 marchers–including 300 firefighters statewide, police officers, and municipal workers and unions–marched at the state’s Capitol Square in protest of the anticipated impending cuts. Between 50 to 60 firefighters, in turnout gear, from the Madison Fire Department marched, according to Lieutenant David F. Peterson. “The cuts will hurt the cities in a huge way,” says Peterson. Our department could lose $8 million a year.” Some localities, Peterson added, might lose $20 to $30 million a year.

At the mayor’s request, the Manitowoc Fire Department has already drawn up a tentative budget reflecting a 4 percent cut, representing $170,000, explains Chief Charles T. Herzog. The 48-member career department is working to maintain a daily staffing level of 12 persons to cover four stations, Herzog points out. Herzog says the department has been frugal in past years and that the average increase in the department’s budget has been 31/2 percent. “We have been working with 10 fewer people than in the mid-’80s,” he notes. Herzog adds that the mayor favors the 12-personnel minimum.
There has been some talk from the state’s financial agencies about modifying the revenue-cutting proposal to a phasing-out process instead of using an all-at-once approach. In that case, it’s been suggested that the municipalities’ 2002 budgets would remain as is. “Right now,” explains Manitowoc’s Deputy Chief Jim Krowiorz, “we are collectively holding our breath waiting for the other shoe to drop.” In the original revenue-cutting proposal, retroactive cuts would have been made in the 2002 budget

The only way departments could handle the sizeable budget cuts being proposed would be to lay off personnel, fire department spokespersons say, and they say that whether the budget cut comes this year or next year, fire departments, in Peterson’s words, “are still looking at some big-time hits in the budget.”

The governor’s office reportedly seemed impressed with the number of people who participated in the March 12 protest, and with a gubernatorial election to be held in November, the State Legislature has not yet shown its hand. “The legislature is looking at different options,” says Acting Chief Jeff Roemer of the Allouez Fire Department in Green Bay. Roemer acknowledged that if the proposed revenue-cutting plan were adopted, cities and municipalities would lose state aid.

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