County Board votes to fully fund emergency radio upgrades

by Abby Lynn Harvey of The Review staff

SHEBOYGAN – A question of funding for volunteer fire department radios struck up passionate debate at the Tuesday, March 18 meeting of the County Board of Supervisors.

The measure being discussed was a proposed amendment to Resolution No. 29, which addresses the cost of new radios for local government, a step toward the continued emergency radio system replacement project.

Supervisor Richard Bemis immediately proposed an amendment to have the county foot 100 percent of the cost for all volunteer fire and emergency response departments.

“These guys aren’t being paid anything for the work they’re doing,” he said. “They have to take the training, they donate their time and then they try to raise a few buck to keep their equipment up to date.”

The un-amended resolution called for county funding at 70 percent for all law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel, be they volunteer or paid.

The amendment attracted much debate from those who believed that the cost was too great and that while the volunteer departments may struggle to find that funding, there are other avenues for them to go down to seek additional funding through their respective municipal boards.

“I originally supported 50 percent. I thought that gave local government the opportunity to see if they actually need all these radios,” said Supervisor Devin LeMahieu. “I was a little disappointed when it went up to 70 percent. Local volunteer fire departments and ambulances choose how many people they’re going to have working for them.”

He went on to state that it is the decision of the local governments to have volunteer departments rather than paid departments.

“They can go to local units of government, the villages (and) the townships they service and ask them for the money.”

He ended his statement by saying that although he doesn’t represent the city of Sheboygan, he doesn’t feel that the city should be penalized for having a paid fire department.

This argment was met with anger by Superivor Brian Hoffman, who was in support of the amendment.

“I’m wondering whether Devin has ever spent any time on a volunteer fire department or on a Village Board (or) a Town Board,” he said. “Our funds in the town of Wilson, we are strapped. We don’t have a rainy day fund. These fellas literally have to go out and sell bratwurst. We don’t have it. I don’t know what cloud Mr. LeMahieu is under.”

Supervisor Mike Ogea, who had intended to make the amendment that evening, but was beaten to it by Bemis, spoke at length about his support for the measure.

“We sit here and we continually harp on the state about unfunded mandates and at the same time we’re trying to force them on our local governments,” he said. “For crying out loud, if we pay for it this time we’re going to have radios that are compatible and if we stick with systems that are compatible, it’s not going to be an issue next time.”

While debate continued a bottom line cost for the proposed amendment was calculated to be $750,000, bringing the total cost to the county to roughly $2.5 million.

Still further questions were raised about the last minute addition of the amendment.

“My only question right now in making this decision is not even based on the financial. But why wasn’t this brought through the committee process?” asked Supervisor Ed Procek.

Supervisor Mike Ogea answered, stating that the idea was discussed at length in committee.“I brought it up, but I lost,” he said. “Plain and simple I lost in committee.”

When brought to vote the amendment to fund volunteer departments 100 percent passed 13-9 with one abstention.

The amended resolution passed 17-5 with one abstention.

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