As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Sunday, a tragic fire on W. Clarke Street put Alderman Bob Donovan on a new mission to restore a Milwaukee Truck Company recently cut by Mayor Barrett's budget. Alderman Donovan compared cutting fire companies to a risky game of Russian roulette where people's lives are needlessly at risk. The Alderman's analogy likely refers to a fatal fire in Milwaukee that took the life of her citizens.
This story raises some interesting questions. In the city of Milwaukee, part of the truck company's duties is to perform "search and rescue" operations. So the question is, if the truck company on N. Holton St. were available to respond to this fire, would they have arrived soon enough to save this man's life?
According to dispatch reports, the first company to respond was an engine, which arrived three minutes after dispatched. It took the next available truck company six minutes to arrive because a previous call forced it outside its response area. In other words, there was a delay in response time - a delay that would not have occurred if the truck company on N. Holton St. weren't cut by Barrett's budget.
When asked about the cutbacks, acting Fire Chief Michael Jones said that a computer program analyzed the proposed cutbacks and showed no gaps in their resources. However, such a program analyzes the role of cutbacks in the fire department "under normal conditions". And as firefighters know, there are times when they don't operate under normal conditions. Sometimes truck companies respond to false alarms rendering the company unavailable for another call. And as a result, another truck company must respond outside of the call-district.
During economic downturns, unemployment rates experience an upward trend. This creates somewhat of a problem for state governments because if people aren't making money, then they can't pay taxes. In fact, not only do governments have problems receiving a steady flow of tax revenue, they end up paying out to social programs like unemployment insurance. As a result, decreased tax revenue forces the hand of government either to raise taxes, enforce budget cuts, or to do both.
In the case of Mayor Tom Barrett, he took a gamble by cutting from the Fire Department. Police and Fire Departments are the last true safety nets for the community. Cutting from emergency services is not equivalent to cutting from say parks or transit. When you cut from parks, maintenance gets deferred. When you cut from transit, fewer buses run routes. But when you cut from the police and fire departments, people get hurt.
In an economic recession, Mayor Barrett chose to focus more on raising taxes and fees than making budget cuts. His budget raises property taxes by 4.4%, which pushes the overall tax rate up to 10%. Homeowners are not exempt from fee hikes either. A question to ask Barrett's campaign is why he preferred taxing us rather than tightening the belt of government spending?
Conventional wisdom dictates that if an administrator needs to make budget cuts, you reduce services that play the least important role in public life. For instance, Barrett cut library hours from 56 hours a week to 35 hours. This was a good decision. In terms of city services, however, Barrett was not successful at cutting much else.
Barrett needs to understand that cutting emergency services should be the last option. During the budgetary process last November, Barrett said that everyone in the city government should share in the sacrifices needed to fill the $90 million shortfall in the city budget. This sort of reasoning doesn't make much sense considering that not all city employees are equally important to Milwaukee citizens. Garbage men don't save lives, and librarians don't respond to domestic disputes. This isn't rocket science, Mr. Mayor. Close a few more libraries or place more restrictions on garbage pickups before you decide to furlough the police or cut truck companies.