By Shereen Siewert
Citing serious concerns over finance, leadership and accountability, village officials in Weston voted Monday to terminate their partnership with the South Area Fire and Emergency Response District.
Unless a new agreement is reached the partnership will terminate on Dec. 31, 2021, 18 months from now. If the impasse continues, SAFER could ultimately dissolve.
Village President Wally Sparks, during Tuesday’s meeting, said finances at SAFER have been “a mess” with leaders unable to answer even basic questions about their budget projections. SAFER, Sparks said, has “failed on the financial end” of their operation, and is in need of leadership changes.
Sparks pointed to significant debt generated by SAFER and said he doesn’t believe the department is being run in a fiscally responsible manner.
“I think it is absolutely irresponsible for someone running the department to come in and ask for a 21 percent increase in operations, which is what they asked for this last year,” Sparks said. “They have outstanding firefighters and staff but the leadership end has been lacking.”
Trustee Mark Maloney also expressed strong frustration with leaders at SAFER and openly questioned why Chief Matt Savage did not attend the most recent four or five meetings in Weston. Maloney also asked Savage, who attended Monday’s meeting virtually, why both Savage and Assistant Chief Josh Finke chose to keep their offices in Rib Mountain, rather than Weston.
“Why wouldn’t one of you office at Weston’s facility?” Maloney asked. “Why are both of you officed over in Rib Mountain?”
“That’s why we have battalion chiefs,” Savage said, though he admitted there are also battalion chiefs in Rib Mountain.
Maloney said he is “quite disappointed” that Savage was not at Monday’s meeting in person.
“I actually can’t remember the last time you’ve been here, and I understand you attend all of Rib Mountain’s meetings,” Maloney said.
One of the biggest issues discussed Tuesday centered on budgets and negotiating contracts with nearby communities being served by SAFER, which was formed six years ago. Trustee Barbara Ermeling criticized SAFER’s contracts with neighboring communities and their ability to budget appropriately.
Trustee Nate Fiene said the department has a history of “rampant” allegations of sexual harassment, favoritism and changing standards for employees that led to high turnover rates.
But Trustee Loren White said high turnover rates are partly due to the size of the department, where people early in their career go for experience before moving on to larger communities. White said it would be a “big, big mistake” for a community the size of Weston to try to run its own department when more municipalities are having a conversation about regional partnerships.
Maloney said regional partnerships are still possible, suggesting that Weston could open negotiations with Kronenwetter and Riverside, which services Rothschild and Schofield. Riverside launched in 2017.
SAFER provides Fire and EMS and rescue operations to Rib Mountain, village of Weston, town of Weston, village of Kronenwetter and the towns of Easton, Ringle, Guenther, Stettin, and Marathon. The District originated in 2014 and operates stations in both Rib Mountain and the village of Weston.
The EMS service area covers nearly 300 square miles with a population over 36,000; while the first due fire coverage serves over 26,000 people and 125 square miles.