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River Hills' stance unclear as Brunner continues toward veto of NSFD funding formula

Nov. 15, 2013

A tense discussion among elected officials Friday did not produce a recommendation on whether River Hills Village President Bob Brunner should veto a proposed fire department funding formula next week at a North Shore Fire Department Board meeting.

However, Brunner said before Friday's meeting that he would exercise his veto power next week regardless of what the River Hills board had to say on the matter.

"It's unfortunate, but a lot of the people (River Hills trustees) don't know the details of what they (would be) voting up or down on," Brunner said.

The proposed formula, which determines the share of the total NSFD budget each community pays, would take effect in 2016 and replace a three-year formula set by the NSFD board in 2012. With the help of third-party mediator Public Policy Forum, officials and administrators from the member communities arrived at the new formula after 10 months of consideration.

And though policy forum President Rob Henken has said the resulting formula proposal gained consensus among city and village administrators, the same cannot be said of elected officials. In mid-October Brunner threatened to veto the new formula if a vote is called at the coming meeting. In response, Glendale Mayor Jerome Tepper said he would advise Glendale to separate from NSFD in 2016 if the proposed formula is defeated.

Since then, village boards in Whitefish Bay and Fox Point have gone on record in favor of the proposal, one with a formal vote and one without.

Veto power

Any change to the fire department's funding formula requires a unanimous vote by the fire board, granting any member an effective veto power.

Brunner and Trustee Michael White advocated the veto.

"It seems that the unanimous requirement was to protect the minority position, which is (River Hills)," White said. "I don't think it's a wise situation to be in a scenario where...we'll be dictated to."

"We can either go along or get along," Brunner said. "This to me, as I've said, is a very major issue. It could affect my longevity on the board."

Trustee Bill Walker, however, was skeptical.

"There are some potentially negative things that could arise," Walker said of the possible Glendale split and political fallout. "Are you ready to deal with that?"

"It's part of the job," Brunner responded. "I'm not saying these things lightly."

Other trustees said Brunner should vote for the proposal.

"It's an outstanding service," Trustee Stephen Anderson said. "I don't see what our options are."

Added Trustee Wendy Walcott: "They don't need us. We need them."

Cost increases either way

Brunner suggested that it wouldn't be a bad thing if Glendale follows through with Tepper's threat to leave NSFD.

"You ought to be able to operate with six communities if Glendale pulls out," Brunner said. "I don't understand this fear element that we couldn't do something."

River Hills' share of fire department costs are projected to increase whether the proposed formula is approved or Glendale leaves the department.

According to a sample calculation by Public Policy Forum's Henken, River Hills share of NSFD costs would increase by about $33,000 under the proposed formula. Since the proposal includes a five-year phase in, that would mean a roughly $6,000 annual increase in costs between 2016 and 2020.

Estimates by NSFD administrators show that if Glendale — who among the member communities contributes the biggest share for operating costs at more than $4 million — were to leave, River Hills would face a roughly $111,000 increase.

Differences of opinion

Fire Chief Robert Whitaker said Brunner and other NSFD board members have in the past made decisions on formula proposals based solely on whether their community's share increases. The current proposal is grounded more in historical data and less in politics, Whitaker said.

"It's like bringing out your scorecard after the ball game and asking whether you won last night," Whitaker said of the bargaining-based approach to past formula negotiations. "(Henken) pushed a philosophical, policy-based discussion and that's how that group got to (the new formula)."

Village Manager Chris Lear, whom Brunner took to task for weighing in on the formula to Henken, spoke in favor of it.

"There's just no perfect way to come up with a formula," Lear said. "In my opinion, this is not a bad deal for River Hills."

Village Attorney Bill Dineen pointed out that in 2007 when negotiations became heated and Glendale threatened to leave, Brunner approved a formula change at the NSFD board and later voted against it when it came back to the River Hills board for ratification.

Brunner said he would be hesitant to do the same now.

"I don't want to make it seem like I'm talking out of both sides of my mouth," Brunner said, "recommending one thing and taking a different position."

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