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24 Milwaukee Fire Positions Cut, 12 EMS Positions Gained in 2012 Proposal

MILWAUKEE, Wis. -- Heading into what could be his seventh battle over firefighter staffing in eight years, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett will propose slicing 12 firefighter jobs in the 2012 city budget he will unveil Tuesday.

If the Common Council agrees, three firefighting companies would be taken out of service each month, on a rotating basis, and a fourth company would be closed for the entire year, up from two a month. That reduction would be partly offset by the addition of two new emergency medical units.

The original "brownouts" -- like earlier cuts in the size of firefighting crews -- drew furious opposition from the Milwaukee Professional Firefighters Association, which accused Barrett of endangering the safety of its members and the public.

Barrett's budget also would slightly raise property taxes and fees; change the way city residents sort their recycling; and wrestle with knotty pension issues likely to be resolved in court.

Overall, spending would dip 4%, to $1.42 billion, while the property tax levy would rise less than 1%, to $248.3 billion. The property tax rate would increase 11 cents, from $9.12 to $9.23 per $1,000 of assessed value.

In rounded numbers, that would translate into a city property tax bill of about $1,133 on an average $122,700 home, up from nearly $1,123 this year, when the same home was assessed at about $123,100. Those figures don't include taxes levied by Milwaukee County, the Milwaukee Public Schools and other government bodies.

This will be the first city budget since Gov. Scott Walker and the Legislature slapped tight limits on property taxes, while slicing aid to local governments and ending most collective bargaining for most public employees.

Firefighter staffing has typically been one of the most controversial issues in Barrett's budgets. He has proposed reductions in every budget except this year's spending plan, which was introduced in fall 2010, when he was running for governor.

For next year, Barrett would trim 24 firefighter jobs from firefighting companies, by expanding the "brownouts" that have sidelined two pumper engine or ladder truck companies every month for the past two years.

But half those jobs would be shifted to the new emergency medical units, one each on the north side and the south side, for a net loss of 12 jobs through attrition. It would be up to Fire Chief Mark Rohlfing whether to staff the new units with paramedics or regular firefighters, all of whom are emergency medical technicians. Barrett said the restructuring reflects the evolution of the Fire Department's mission.

Emergency medical service accounts for 80% of the department's calls - with slightly less than half the medical calls requiring paramedics - in contrast to 6% for fires, 12% for rescues and 2% for other services.

Answering medical calls with medical units, instead of firetrucks, would save fuel and provide "more flexibility to respond to what is increasingly becoming the main service of the Fire Department," Barrett said.

Also in the budget: City employees: Caught between a state law and a city attorney's opinion, Barrett wants to set aside $8.2 million until a pension funding dispute is resolved.

A new state law requires all public employees, except firefighters and most law enforcement officers, to pay half the cost of their pensions. But City Attorney Grant Langley says that law doesn't apply to the city pension fund.

Barrett says he'll recommend the city seek the payments, knowing the issue will likely end up in court. If Langley's opinion is upheld, the city would use the $8.2 million to continue paying most of the employees' share of pension costs.

But if the law is upheld, Barrett says, the $8.2 million could be used to avoid unpaid furlough days and grant pay raises. Otherwise, most city workers - except police and firefighters -- would again be subject to a wage freeze and four unpaid days off.

Fees: Barrett is seeking increases of $3.36 in the solid waste fee, to $171.52; $5.94 in the city sewer fee, to $82.82; and $2.88 in the storm water fee, to $59.76, all per year for the average home. The fee for extra garbage carts would double, from $20 to $40 a year, while extra recycling carts would remain free.

Recycling: City residents no longer would have to separate different types of recycling - paper, glass, plastic and metal - from each other. But they still would have to keep recyclables separate from regular garbage.

Elected officials: Barrett isn't recommending a merger of the city comptroller's and treasurer's offices, although he will seek to shift part of the treasurer's investment role to the comptroller. He said consolidation of the two fiscal offices remains under study, in the wake of decisions by longtime Treasurer Wayne Whittow and Comptroller W. Martin "Wally" Morics not to seek re-election.

The mayor previously announced a proposal to increase public library hours. Aldermen will hold hearings on Barrett's budget throughout October.

Key points in Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett's 2012 budget: Total spending: $1.42 billion, down 4%.

Tax levy: $248.3 million, up less than 1%.

Tax bills: City taxes for the average $122,700 home would be $1,133, up from about $1,123 this year, when the same home was assessed at $123,100.

Fees: The solid waste fee would rise $3.36, to $171.52; the city sewer fee would rise $5.94, to $82.82; and the storm water fee would rise $2.88, to $59.76, for the average home. Extra garbage carts would cost $40 a year, up from $20.

City workers: Everyone except police officers and firefighters would be subject to a wage freeze and four unpaid furlough days, as they were this year, unless Barrett succeeds in requiring pension contributions from most city workers. No one would be laid off.

Services: Four firefighting companies would be out of service every day, up from two, but two new emergency medical units would be added. City residents would no longer have to separate different types of recycling from each other, only from regular garbage. Hours would increase at all but one city library. Source: City budget office.


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