The City of Lake Geneva’s budget process has started, and the big issue should be public safety.
As a general rule, meetings determining city budgets are boring, and mainly about maintaining the operation of the city. But this year attention needs to be focused on public safety from a long-term perspective and from a preventative action perspective. The biggest single budget item in the budget is public safety (police and fire department budgets), which comes in at about 45% of the city’s total budget. But if public safety-related costs are including for their portion incurred by other departments such as health and human services, debt services, and the deferred retirement benefits, then the real cost for public safety is over half (52%) of the city’s budget. Based on the current trends, that percentage of the city’s public safety budget is expected to increase in the coming years.
Despite having fewer fires, and less use of the firefighting equipment, the fire department’s actual costs have increased rapidly over the last few years, and they are expected to continue to increase at a similar rate, largely due to the fire department’s expansion into the emergency medical services role, which requires new specialized equipment, more highly trained employees and twenty-four hour around the clock multiple shift staffing. This will eventually require additional locations for storage and staffing. EMS will become more expensive, and if the fire department is to continue on this course, the city needs to be committed to financially supporting EMS for the long term, or the city needs to restrain the fire department from further intrusion into this field. Supplying the area’s emergency medical service is not a year to year issue, but one that needs to have an open discussion aired in public right now. The city council needs to make a decision about whether to have a long-term commitment to fund full blown EMS or to halt further expansion before private services are driven completely out the area and the City of Lake Geneva has made itself liable, and financially bound to provide those services for the Geneva Lake community.
Another public safety-related issue has arisen, as a result of the school shootings that have occurred elsewhere in the nation. The police and fire commission and the police department are looking into a range of proactive steps and preventive measures, options, and procedures that could or should be taken to help maintain and assure the continued security and safety of the schools. It includes the possibility of placing a police officer in every city school, installing or using portable metal detectors, having an alert system, and giving training sessions to instruct teachers and students in how to respond to a terror attack or an active shooter. These issues (when possible) need to be discussed openly, and now because they all involve costs and have multiple impacts and disruptions that can go far beyond the intent of the action that may be taken. A policeman in a school can serve to promote a positive public relationship between the police and students in a student environment and give some a sense of protection and security; whereas, others can see it as a sign that it is not safe because if the school was truly safe there would be no need to have the police there.
Finally, the limitations in keeping the police from being the resolving force for disagreements and student differences has to be considered. An open discussion between the school board, city alderpersons, police and fire personnel, and the public need to be held to determine what, if any, action should or needs to be taken, and how it is to be funded.