Park Ridge Turns Down Fire Truck Repairs; Looks to Voters on Future of PRFD
By Brandi Makuski
The future of the Park Ridge Fire Department could be decided by voters this spring.
Village residents in February will have a chance to vote on an advisory referendum via the spring primary ballot regarding the small fire department. While the exact wording of the referendum question has not yet been discussed, officials in Park Ridge say it will gauge residents’ wishes regarding the future of the volunteer fire department.
Disbanding the village’s fire dept. was one of four options presented to the village last March. Fire Chief Brian Lepper has been working to get approval for upgrades since he took over the small dept. in 2014, but outside last year’s presentation, there’s been almost no movement.
“There’s not much room to move around in there,” Lepper told the village board in 2016. “You’re looking at a matter of inches of space between you and the next vehicle, or between you and the wall. We have to pull one of the vehicles out to get any work done in there.”
Lepper was not able to respond to followup questions for this story, as he has been barred from speaking with media since Village President Trish Baker was elected.
The PRFD is housed in the village hall, which is essentially a residential home with an enlarged garage. Lepper has said the village’s aging vehicle fleet only compounds the problem, because newer, more reliable vehicles are larger than what the village currently owns.
And the continually-rising repair costs for the older vehicles is only a temporary solution, he said.
Other options presented last year included purchasing a newer fire truck, refurbishing an existing fire truck or building a new structure for fire vehicles.
Another option presented was contracting fire services with the City of Stevens Point, which in 2015 would have cost the village about $74,000 a year — far above its $37,000 annual fire dept. budget.
Despite the lengthy conversation, no decision on how to move forward has been reached.
At the board’s Sept. 25 meeting, trustees were asked to approve a $60,000 expense to refurbish the water pump and transmission on Engine No. 2. Lepper requested the replacement in June but it wasn’t considered by the board until September.
That Hail Mary measure was turned down by a vote of 3-2.
Village resident and former board trustee Jim Lamar called the situation “aggravating for everyone”.
“Over the years, when we’ve had equipment break down, [the fire department] has been able to get things repaired; the board certainly stood behind that,” Lamar said. “But let the village residents tell this board what they want; we’ve not heard that yet. But I’ll support whatever’s decided.”
Village resident Christine Neidlein also agreed with the idea of a referendum, asking the board to now “clarify its [referendum] wording”.
“Do it soon enough to communicate with residents, that’s what I’d like to see,” Neidlein added.
The board decided to move to a referendum in August. Board Trustee Randy Busch said there wasn’t time to bring Lepper’s repair request before the board since then.
“This [truck repair] was brought up in June or July, way before this referendum was even mentioned,” Busch said. “We just hadn’t had the chance to bring it to the board.”
Trustee Steven Bergin was less forgiving, saying the village owned a piece of safety equipment that wasn’t reliable.
“While the chance for fire is not very great, that doesn’t mean tomorrow we won’t have a catastrophe,” Bergin said. “As a board, we’ve been shirking our responsibility to deal with this issue in a timely fashion. While I haven’t been on the board for very long (Bergin was elected in April), I’ve been watching this since 2014, and it’s been delay after delay after delay. At this point I believe the village is in a potential position of liability.”
Busch and Bergin both voted in favor of spending the $60,000 for repairs. Trustees Jim Sachs and Gordon Renfert, along with Baker, voted no.