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City needs fresh look at budget

7:34 PM, Nov. 1, 2013  |  Comments
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No one should think the Oshkosh Common Council has an easy job balancing the city's proposed $67.4 million 2014 budget, which calls for the elimination of ten positions, including five firefighters, to close a $2.7 million gap.

Oshkosh Fire Chief Tim Franz laid out the implications of his department shouldering half of the cuts last week, including delayed response times, increased insurance premiums for businesses and more work from a staff already stretched thin.

"It's a domino effect of less availability which creates longer response times which creates poorer incident outcomes," Franz said at a budget hearing. "It may not happen in the first month, but over time, I think we'll see some trends in increases in dollar loss, our ability to contain fires and valuing life over property."

This is the second year in which City Manager Mark Rohloff's budget-cutting crosshairs have centered on the fire department. While no department should be immune to cost savings, citizens expect City Hall to protect life and property. In other words, public safety reductions of such a magnitude should not be contemplated barring a budgetary crisis, which is certainly not the case.

As such, the inclusion of five firefighters in a list of ten overall cuts across the parks, public works, public museum, community development and information technology departments should be reserved for situations in which all other options have been exhausted. They most certainly have not.

The city manager provided a list of other reductions for the council to consider, from eliminating an economic development position and implementing high deductible health insurance for city employees to deferring vehicle replacements for the police department.

There is also the option to boost property taxes higher than slated in the current budget proposal, which increases the tax levy by $1 million, a 3.2 percent increase. If the only choice was between higher taxes and first-class fire protection, the answer would be an easy one.

If public safety is indeed a priority, the city shouldn't even be seriously contemplating eliminating five firefighters. The department does not have any less acreage to protect or fewer citizens to serve. Putting firefighting jobs on the line may be more about providing a justification for a higher tax rate than presenting a credible reality, when other avenues to reduce spending under the council's nose.

Consider the $200,000 the city will spend in 2014 on community media services, mainly for three full-time staffers. There was a time when cable TV franchise fees helped support public access and municipal television services and a radio station.

Today general revenues support the TV stations, while inexpensive smart phones, tablets and personal computers have high quality cameras. A YouTube channel is free. If the choice is between a municipal anchorman or fireman, the answer should be an easy one.

The Final Thought: There are other options to help trim spending in the city budget beyond eliminating 5 firefighter jobs.

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