Damakant Jayshi

Wausau’s Finance Committee on Tuesday approved funding requests for new positions at the fire and police departments and gave a nod to other items on the agenda, including a budget modification to meet shortfall for a street project.

The Finance Committee approved three entry-level firefighter/paramedic positions beginning July 1 after Fire Department Chief Robert Barteck requested an immediate approval of the positions to be funded through American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for two and half years. According to Barteck, the total estimated cost of funding the three firefighters/paramedics for the remainder of 2022 through 2024 is $771,000. City documents show the Fire Department with a shortfall of $501,000. The average annual spending for each firefighter is about $100,000 a year.

“These positions are essential for the survival of the Fire Department,” Barteck told the Finance Committee, with two members absent. The chief added that the community depended on them for emergencies and the fire department has a desperate need for staffing for which he had made repeated requests.

Barteck pointed out that Wausau has not increased staffing for the Fire Department since 1970. “Over the last 52 years, the call volume for the department has tripled and the number of responsibilities to community safety has dramatically increased,” Barteck noted in his funding document request.

The Wausau Fire Department was approved to add 12 firefighters/paramedics and has applied for FEMA’s SAFER grant for nine of the positions. If the grant request is not approved, Barteck said he will return to the Finance Committee to seek funding beginning in 2023.

The Finance Committee also approved the Wausau Police Department’s request to approve funding for a non-sworn community outreach specialist, two weeks after the city’s Human Resources Committee gave its nod to the position that will act as liaison for the city’s unhoused population.

The cost for the position, beginning July 1 this year through 2026, is $450,000, with ARPA Funds providing $140,000. Wausau will pay the balance.

The community outreach specialist will address issues related to homelessness in the city and work with unhoused people to help connect them with resources and shelter. According to Police Chief Benjamin Bliven’s presentations at other committee meetings, the department has been inundated with calls from business and residents from the downtown about issues with homeless people in the area. In his note to the Finance Committee, Bliven said the position would satisfy a Wausau Policing Task Force recommendation that called for such a professional.

Michael Martens, vice chair of the committee, called the investment a good use of ARPA funds and said the city would finally absorb the position by 2024, when ARPA Funds are slated to dry out. Member Sarah Watson said a partial funding approach for the position is a step in the right direction. Carol Lukens, another member, said she liked the non-sworn and non-punitive nature of the position.

The Finance Committee also approved a budget modification to meet a shortfall in the Torney Avenue Street Project. According to the city’s finance director, the shortfall is estimated to be between $150,000-$175,000 “due to rising construction costs and skyrocketing fuel and oil costs.”

The committee also approved continuing its contract with Wisconsin’s Weights and Measures Inspections Services.

Another proposal that the committee gave its nod to is the Interlocal Agreement between the City of Wausau and Marathon County for the 2021 Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program award. The police department and the Marathon County Sheriff’s Department apply jointly every year to the federal government for a JAG grant. Prior to receiving funding, governing bodies from Marathon County and the City of Wausau must approve accepting the grant, a note from WPD states. This year the JAG grant is for $13,848, and the two law enforcement agencies “agreed to again spend the funds on digital forensic computer software utilized in the processing of cell phones.”

Next month the Finance Committee will rank and evaluate five projects to be considered for ARPA funding. Three are from the from Department of Community Development, while three others are from the Department of Public Works and Utilities.