MARINETTE — A proposal to make the Marinette County Department of Emergency Management a division of the Highway Department and retitle its director to a coordinator advanced after several votes Tuesday by the county board’s Public Services Committee.

The committee voted unanimously to recommend that the Administrative Committee and county board approve the creation of an emergency management coordinator position and eliminate the emergency management director position, effective Jan. 2. It also recommended approval of three changes in county ordinances to facilitate the switch, which would include moving the department from the Law Enforcement Center to the Peshtigo Highway Shop.

The full county board voted Aug. 28 to make Eric Burmeister, the county’s longtime emergency management director, the highway commissioner, a position which he had held on an interim basis since June. Since, he has continued to also serve as emergency management director.

County Administrator John Lefebvre explained that the three ordinance changes would shift Emergency Management over to the Highway Department and administration of it to the highway commissioner.

“The Emergency Management Department would become a division of the Highway Department,” he said. “The Emergency Management Director would be then called the coordinator.

“I believe it makes good sense. The purpose of it is to make sure that we combine or put the entity together with the Highway Department because that is the department that is going to be responsible to probably all emergency responses that are coming through Emergency Management in some way, shape or form.

“It doesn’t matter what type of event it is. There’s roads that need to be blocked off, if there’s flooding there’s going to be roads damaged, there’s scenes that need to cordoned off and the  Highway Department will play a major role in that.”

Lefebvre said “the other thing that is a huge benefit is the emergency management director is now the highway commissioner so we keep that link together.”

He stressed that the Department of Emergency Management is currently based in the Law Enforcement Center, but is not part of the Sheriff’s Department, and that its director currently reports to him. He added that the coordinator would instead report to the highway commissioner.

“The administrative responsibilities which are currently under the Department of Emergency of Management will fall back to the highway commissioner,” Burmeister said. “The coordinator will have the other responsibilities and duties that the current emergency management director has. 

“What emergency management does and how emergency management works in Marinette County is not going to change. The division will continue to support other public agencies.”

The justification statement that was included in the committee’s meeting agenda says that “Emergency Management Division will continue to provide 24/7 service to law enforcement, fire, EMS and highway. The division will provide and maintain an Emergency Operations Center at the Marinette County Law Enforcement Center for large county-wide events, however, it will move its offices to the Peshtigo Highway Shop.”

The statement earlier says “the highway commissioner will have ultimate authority for all emergency management activities, however, the emergency management coordinator will assume the duties and responsibilities of the previous emergency management director with exception to administrative/management functions.”

Lefebvre said there is a “potential cost savings (from the proposed moves),” but that the savings could be partially swallowed up by some of the other staff changes taking place at the Highway Department. The committee also voted Tuesday to recommend the creation of an Administrative Specialist position at the Highway Department effective Jan. 2, and elimination of the part-time Emergency Management Program Assistant position, that would have emergency management and highway duties.

“Funding for the position will not change from the current Emergency Management budget which includes revenue from the tax levy, the Emergency Management Performance Grant and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act sources,” the justification statement for the switch to an emergency management coordinator says.

“I’ll admit I was a little confused, this is a lot to swallow at one time,” said Supervisor Ken Keller, committee chairperson. “But I guess I figure it’s been well thought out and there would be advantages to the county down the road.”

“I don’t have a problem with it, being that the highway commissioner has a background in emergency management,” said Supervisor Ginger Deschane, a committee member. “But what concerns me is if Eric leaves, the next person might not have that background.”

“The bottom line is we need the coordinator, an emergency management professional,” Lefebvre said. “They need to be aware of everything that is going on from an emergency management standpoint.

“The difference in this situation is the coordinator will be under the direction of the highway commissioner, right now the director is under my direction. I think it makes more sense to put it under the highway commissioner. We need to build that bridge between emergency management and the administrator. It is important that they (the highway commission and the emergency management coordinator) have a very good relationship and that one of them can dictate.”

Deschane said that “right now that works fine, but if Eric would retire or leave for some reason, are we going to educate our new highway commissioner in emergency management?”

“Hopefully the emergency management coordinator will be doing that on a daily basis much more than Eric educates me on what he does on a daily basis,” Lefebvre said. “There’ll be a better connection there I believe. I don’t believe we’re going to lose anything there.”