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SAFER and Village of Weston hopeful to come up with a solution to financial challenges with district

Published: Jul. 14, 2020 at 9:58 PM CDT
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WESTON, RIB MOUNTAIN, Wis. (WSAW) - Leading up to a South Area Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) District board meeting Tuesday, the chief and Village of Weston board members expressed hope for change and solutions to issues regarding financial problems at the district. The village board in June voted to notify SAFER that is plans to terminate its contract, which effectively ends it Dec. 31, 2021, and several members planned to attend the meeting Tuesday evening to understand SAFER’s perspective as they evaluate whether they should negotiate a new contract or go elsewhere for emergency services.

SAFER’s board meeting agenda included items such as discussion about the Town of Weston’s contract with SAFER, as well as discussion about purchasing accounting software to move its financial bookkeeping back into SAFER from a third party financial company. SAFER Chief Matt Savage told 7 Investigates the town is apprehensive about renewing its contract if the Village of Weston ultimately does not stay with SAFER services and SAFER moves out of its Weston location.

In the village’s board meeting June 1, board president, Wally Sparks and trustee Mark Maloney (who also serve on the SAFER board) aired concerns about how SAFER was handling its finances in the past and currently, with the board ultimately voting to notify SAFER that it plans to terminate its contract. While both Sparks and Maloney said this allows the village to negotiate a new contract with taxpayers in mind, it is open to looking into other partnerships, such as the new Rothschild-Schofield joint agency, Riverside Fire District.

“I don’t have confidence in the leadership there to run this department in an effective and taxpayer focused direction and I don’t think it’s right for our taxpayers to continue in this unless there are significant and some substantial changes,” Sparks said in the meeting.

“There’s some frustration and I get that,” Savage told 7 Investigates Tuesday. “There’s frustration on everyone’s side right now.”

SAFER, a multijurisdictional emergency response service provider, was formed to provide fire and paramedic services for the Town of Rib Mountain and the Village of Weston. It began services in 2014. The Village of Weston agreed to handle its financial bookkeeping for the first few years for free. At the time John Jacobs was the head of the finance department and Daniel Guild was the village administrator. SAFER also contracts for service in surrounding municipalities, including the Village of Kronenwetter and Towns of Easton, Ringle, Guenther, Stettin, Weston, and Marathon, but Rib Mountain and the Village of Weston provide the majority of the funding.

“Initially our revenues were estimated a little high and our expenditures were estimated a little low and it turned out to be the other way around,” Savage explained. “And the SAFER board of directors were not made aware of that for the first two and a half, almost three years.”

SAFER took over the financial bookkeeping duties in 2017, discovering the district was about $650,000 in debt. Savage said they learned that the village was funding large amounts of money to keep SAFER running without telling the SAFER or Weston boards.

“We got deeper and deeper into getting behind on operational costs, which we didn’t know about so that when we would go and plan the next year for our budget, we would think ‘wow, we’re doing pretty good,’ when in reality, we were not,” he said about financial planning before the switch.

Savage, who was promoted from deputy chief to chief in 2015, said he planned to recoup those costs gradually, but the SAFER board at the time of discovery wanted swift changes. Savage said they cut staff, which is their biggest expense.

They went from having eight staff at a time being on shift to six and have since raised that back to seven; staff is split between the two stations, with three on staff at Rib Mountain and four at Weston currently per 24-hour shift. In addition to 13 full-time employees, it also has about 40 on-call part-time staff.

With more than 3,000 calls for service a year, Savage said staffing cuts have not affected their service to communities, but it has strained the district’s resources. He said he and his command staff will run calls if needed to provide services without interruption and the on-call employees will step in when they can.

“Municipal services are, are staff-heavy; police departments, fire departments, they’re, they’re staff-heavy,” Savage said. “So, my goal is to get us to a level of staffing that we can cover calls and that we’re not constantly walking on eggshells because if the tones drop one more time we’re out of people.”

Barb Ermeling, a current Weston board member and former board president, however, said even after SAFER took charge of the finances it continually overestimated on revenue and underestimated expenditures, putting the budget in the red.

SAFER currently uses a third-party financial service to manage finances and bookkeeping. Last year, the district was able to break even, and Savage said they actually have a $50,000 surplus. Sparks was skeptical of the surplus in the June 1 meeting, saying he was told the budget could be looked at in five different ways. Maloney also mentioned when vehicles were sold, leadership wanted to spend the money on new equipment rather than save.

In that meeting, Sparks also scoffed at SAFER’s request to increase their budget by 21%, saying as a former police chief of a multijurisdictional department he would have never asked for that kind of increase. Savage told 7 Investigates Tuesday that increase was largely asked so they could hire two more full-time employees and address some capital costs, which was discussed in prior meetings. He understood if the village could not approve that, adding he understands some of the positions he wants to add may not come until his retirement, but he said he needed to ask.

Sparks and Maloney also had concerns, saying in the June 1 meeting that they did not feel that Weston was being treated as an equal partner, with Rib Mountain and the municipalities its previous fire service handled being favored. They cited the contract price difference for the Town of Weston versus the Town of Marathon (a municipality Rib Mountain’s service partnered with) was drastically different, with Weston (which has a lower population) taking on about $10,000 and Marathon taking about $5,000.

Speaking with Maloney over the phone Tuesday ahead of the SAFER meeting, he said he believes the village and SAFER will be able to come together with a solution, Ermeling also expressed that to 7 Investigates.

Weston board members expressed during the June 1 meeting that the services SAFER provides are not a problem and that their staff is trained well. SAFER is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Ambulance Services.

“SAFER’s future truly is bright, it sounds cliché,” Savage said. “We’re going to get through these discussions and we’re going to move forward and hopefully that includes the Village of Weston. I really hope it does.”

At the June 1 Weston board meeting, trustee Nathan Fiene also brought up past “rampant sexual harassment” at the department as well as “alleged favoritism...changing of standards for one prominent position, unwillingness to hold other command staff to accountability.” In regards to the sexual harassment, Fiene is referencing complaints filed by staff over the last three years.

Leadership conducted interviews with complainants and other relevant employees for four separate complaints between 2018 and early 2020. One included a male staff member who dated another staff member and made false allegations against her and sent an email to Weston board members regarding those allegations as well as partially nude photos. He ultimately quit after his interview. Two others involved perceived inappropriate physical actions.

One complainant in 2018 reported that another staff member “blew a kiss” on her neck. The staff member who was accused of that action said he waved his hand past the back of her neck, which another staff member who witnessed verified. Regardless, the accused “was reminded that an employee’s perception is reality and that such behavior is conduct unbecoming,” and reminded of SAFER’s policies.

The other incident resulted in the accused also being reminded of the policies and not reprimanded because the actions could not be proven. The complaint was filed five months after the incident, at a point where any video surveillance footage would have been deleted from the system automatically.

In regards to Fiene’s mention of the command staff’s management of SAFER, in 2018, SAFER Fire Commission (SFC) investigated Chief Savage and Deputy Chief Josh Finke after SFC received concerns about performance issues and action taken by SAFER leadership. Those concerns included some aired by members of Northcentral Technical College that were emailed to Daniel Guild that related to how SAFER was being run and operational concerns, as well as concerns from NTC leadership that SAFER command continually complaining to the state and technical college system board about the quality of NTC programs. The SFC’s summary document about this notes Fiene’s support for NTC’s concerns.

SFC reached out to all complainants. Those complainants and NTC were offered the opportunity to meet with the commission in closed session to address complaints. Savage and Finke were offered the opportunity to attend, but not speak. After investigation and conversations with those with concerns, the commission “unanimously felt that no further action was needed against any SAFER leadership.” However, it did note that some policies could be refined so those who have complaints can go through the proper channels, which would mean not going to the village board with complaints.

Savage was listening in on the June 1 village board meeting virtually when Fiene made these mentions. Savage responded to 7 Investigate’s question about his reaction to that saying the allegations were found to be false at the time of the investigations, the harassment complaints were handled and he commented on the fact that Fiene brought it up in an open public meeting.

“That one stung a little. First off, it wasn’t true, and second off, I’m proud to be part of this family and there’s (sic) so many people here that are proud, everyone I think here is,” he said. “And that was kind of a low blow if you will.”

This article will be updated as 7 Investigates reviews documents related to these issues.

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