Five Years After Merger, Two Wisconsin Towns’ Firefighters Are ‘One Department, Fully Involved’

Published April 1, 2008

Len VanderWyst never doubted that a fire service merger between Neenah and Menasha would be successful, though there were doubts it would come to pass.

Now, as chief of Neenah-Menasha Fire Rescue, which came into being January 1, 2003, VanderWyst has a five-year track record of success to prove his point. Many observers consider the fire-service merger a significant step forward that has exceeded expectations.

“The key is you want efficient and cost-effective fire service,” said Jim Gunz, a Neenah resident and former Neenah city attorney. “It seems to me that it’s worked very well.”

The numbers seem to bear out Gunz’s assessment. From a financial standpoint, the merger is estimated to have made a significant impact, with operational savings since the start date probably approaching $1.7 million. Combined with capital equipment savings, VanderWyst believes the overall savings might be closer to $2.7 million.

“I think the whole thing has flourished beyond anybody’s expectations,” VanderWyst said.

From a service perspective, firefighters agree that while response times remain about the same, more firefighters are on the scene quicker, providing more personnel for critical search-and-rescue efforts in the early stages of any structure fire.

Taxpayers are getting “a much better service for their money,” said Deputy Fire Chief Steve DeLeeuw.

Along with the April 1, 1995 merger of the Kimberly and Little Chute police departments into the Fox Valley Metro Police Department, they are the two shining examples of consolidated public safety services in the Fox Cities.

Initial Savings Not Enough

While the fire consolidation concept was not new, the approach used by VanderWyst and Menasha Fire Chief Pat O’Brien, with unionized firefighters brought into the process early on, helped ensure that it at least had a fighting chance.

The initial merger proposal called for adding one full-time position to a consolidated department and relied primarily on capital cost savings because Menasha would not have to buy a $600,000 ladder truck.

Still, VanderWyst and others soon realized that was probably not enough to get many to make such a big change.

“What really turned that page was when we were able to sit down with the union and come up with the table of organization that actually did reduce staffing that everybody was agreeable to,” VanderWyst said.

Assistant Fire Chief Al Auxier, the Neenah firefighter union president when merger discussions began, recalled that state revenue limits were starting to put a squeeze on municipalities.

Firefighters recognized that changes were in the offing and assurances that any staff reductions would be handled via attrition, not layoffs, helped. “I think both unions felt we could do this to help the cities out,” Auxier said.

VanderWyst said the capital cost savings over the years could be “a million dollars plus,” but more was needed. “In my mind, based on all the meetings we had, it was not significant enough unless we had annual (operational) savings. By reducing (staffing) from 72 combined to 68, we’re saving about $334,000 a year in wages and fringe benefits.”

Savings Exceed Expectations

At the time of the merger, officials projected savings of up to $2.2 million in the first five years.

While no in-depth analysis has been done, Neenah Finance Director Michael Easker and Menasha Comptroller-Treasurer Tom Stoffel agree substantial savings have materialized.

“If we saved $350,000 the first year, we definitely saved the same $350,000 the next year plus another 3 percent,” Easker said. In March, Neenah-Menasha Fire Rescue will take delivery on a new rescue pumper from Pierce Manufacturing. VanderWyst said the original capital improvement plan called for a rescue vehicle purchase in 2006 and a pumper in 2008 totaling $690,000.

Instead of buying separate vehicles, the needs were combined into one rescue pumper that cost about $503,000 fully equipped.

“So we saved the two communities about $190,000 by combining those two purchases into one,” VanderWyst said. Gunz believes the merger has been a good deal for both communities.

“I think they’ve saved a lot of money, particularly in capital costs,” Gunz said. “There were operational savings because of the staff reductions. There were also operational increases because of some of the contract items because of the merged (union) contracts but on balance they obviously have saved a fair amount of money over the last five years.”

Historic Vote Erased Doubts

VanderWyst, a former Appleton firefighter who became Neenah’s fire chief in 1996 after a three-year stint as chief in Antigo, recalls the moment when doubts about the merger dissipated.

On August 29, 2002, VanderWyst and O’Brien had just concluded an hour-long presentation followed by questions from Neenah and Menasha aldermen about the proposed consolidation at a joint meeting of the common councils in Menasha. That’s when a Neenah alderman made a motion to approve the merger resolution.

“It passed unanimously,” said VanderWyst. He and O’Brien, who played a crucial role in the consolidation, “looked at each other and we said, ‘I think it’s going to happen.'”

When it came to the Menasha council’s turn, two aldermen suggested postponing the vote for more input. The rest of the Menasha council was not swayed. When the final 7-0 vote was announced, the large assembly broke into applause at the historic moment.

VanderWyst said he thought the Neenah council’s initiative broke the ice. “Otherwise I think it might have been studied to death and may not have ever happened,” he said.

Good Timing for Merger

Easker credited O’Brien for his leadership when he could have easily thrown a monkey wrench into the merger effort had he been protective of his own interests.

“Pat O’Brien is a very, very strong public service-minded individual. He thought it was a good idea. Had Pat not worked as hard as Len did, it wouldn’t have happened,” Easker said.

O’Brien, who retired in July 2003 during the first year of the merger, said he was surprised at how things fell into place.

“Timing is very important in this whole dialogue,” said O’Brien, who has served 24 years as a supervisor on the Winnebago County Board. “If there’s managers that are ready to retire, that’s a great opportunity. It’s certainly not the key issue but it’s 25 percent.”

A former union president, O’Brien knew that support of the unionized firefighters would be crucial. They were told early on of a research paper about the merger that VanderWyst was starting for the Executive Fire Officer program at the National Fire Academy.

Slowly, the unified front of the two fire chiefs gained momentum among some reluctant firefighters and city officials.

“We were just so persistent that all of a sudden people just started jumping on board,” O’Brien said. He credited Easker and Stoffel for embracing the consolidation study and coming up with a cost-sharing formula that made sense for both communities.

“It was a great team effort by everybody involved,” O’Brien said.

Shuffling Firefighters Aided Integration

Over the past five years, VanderWyst said, “There’s been some speed bumps but I can’t say there’s been potholes or sinkholes we’ve had to get through. I would relate most of the speed bumps to personalities in bringing the two departments and communities together.”

VanderWyst and O’Brien decided it was best to “shuffle the deck immediately” and assigned firefighters from each community into the other and rotated them every four to six months through each of the four fire stations so they all gained familiarity with the various fire trucks and service areas.

Many firefighters were “trying to stay at the station and community they were used to,” VanderWyst said. “I think that was probably one of the best things we could have been done. I think that helped eliminate people still believing that they were still independent, that it’s not one organization.”

Noting that service mergers or consolidations continue to be a hot topic in the Fox Cities, VanderWyst said, “I would say that people issues was the No. 1 concern and is the No. 1 thing that the leaders should concentrate on so that there is a smooth transition.”

Michael King ([email protected]) is staff writer for The Post-Crescent newspaper in Appleton, Wisconsin. This article originally appeared in the January 6, 2008 edition. Reprinted with permission.