VERMILION LAKE TWP— Township officials here were astonished this week after Tower’s ambulance director and fire chief Steve Altenburg appeared at Monday’s town board meeting to criticize the …
VERMILION LAKE TWP— Township officials here were astonished this week after Tower’s ambulance director and fire chief Steve Altenburg appeared at Monday’s town board meeting to criticize the township’s handling of its records, to raise questions about firefighter training, and to allege that the situation was being intentionally “suppressed” by Timberjay publisher Marshall Helmberger.
Altenburg’s presentation came just one week after he delivered a 46-minute-long harangue against Helmberger at a Tower City Council meeting. Altenburg told the council he is upset by reporting and recent editorials in the Timberjay that have raised questions about the ambulance service’s shift to a paid on-call staffing model under Altenburg. Helmberger had also penned an op-ed just ahead of the recent general election that expressed concern about Altenburg, who was then running for Tower Mayor. Altenburg lost that race by a wide margin to Orlyn Kringstad.
Prior to his presentation, Altenburg set up video recording equipment and suggested that he might be posting it online. In a written statement he provided to the town board, Altenburg appeared to address Helmberger personally and somewhat threateningly, even though Helmberger was not in attendance at the meeting. “I guess transparency is fine as long as it’s not in your own backyard. No worries, Marshall, the Internet and I are here to help.”
Altenburg provided no information regarding his specific concerns about the fire department, other than to claim that there are a “host of questions regarding the actual number of active firefighters, actual trained/certified Fire 1 and Fire 2 staff and, the ability of those firefighters to actually use the equipment to fight interior fires.”
Altenburg also criticized the department for having “extremely old and outdated equipment that is not safe and should not be in service, including vehicles parked around the area that are still listed as active fire trucks.”
Fire Chief Steve Lotz said he’s yet to receive any inquiry from Altenburg about the issues he raised, and said he was unsure what Altenburg was referring to. He said the fire department does maintain a second 4x4 brush rig in cold, indoor storage during the winter, but the vehicle is deployed as needed for wildland fires in the warmer months. The truck is a late-70s vintage vehicle, but the department has upgraded its pumping equipment in recent years.
The department, which is funded primarily by an annual fire levy of approximately $11,000, has managed to acquire usable equipment by utilizing surplus equipment from the DNR and the federal government and obtaining federal grants. The department used FEMA grant funds to purchase a new main engine in 2006 and obtained new turnout gear for all its members in 2010. The department has prioritized replacement of its aging water tender and outdated SCBA and applied for federal grants to purchase a new tender and SCBA. Helmberger and Lotz combined in developing all of the department’s FEMA grant requests, saving the cost of hiring a grant writer.
Altenburg has never inquired about training records before, either to Chief Lotz or to Helmberger, who has been the department’s training officer for the past 20 years. Altenburg gave no indication who was raising questions, although similar issues have recently been raised by Bob and Carol Pratt, the parents of Tower City Clerk Linda Keith, who is close to Altenburg.
Bob Pratt was recently appointed to the Vermilion Lake Town Board to fill a vacancy after he lost his bid for the seat during the township election in March. Carol Pratt, in recent months, has begun writing stories on the town board for the Tower News, and township officials have expressed concerns about the accuracy of that reporting. “It’s pretty slanted,” said board chair Phil Anderson.
Altenburg also complained that some township employee files were being stored in safes in the private homes of township officials, since Vermilion Lake, like many small townships, does not maintain clerk office hours or have office space within its small town hall. Altenburg also complained that the township is maintaining historical records, some dating back to the township’s founding, in old locked freezers, to ensure protection from fire. According to Lotz, who is also township treasurer, the donated freezers are used for storage of old records and the units are secured in a locked building at the township’s cemetery. Altenburg gave no indication of the reason for his concern about the township’s longstanding practice, other than to suggest that it did not qualify as a best practice.
Board chair Phil Anderson said he was taken aback by Altenburg’s appearance, which he said appeared to track innuendo raised in a recent Tower News story. “It was pretty bizarre to have somebody who doesn’t even live in the township come in and stir things up,” said Anderson, who suggested to Altenburg that it appeared he was doing so to “take the heat off himself over his own performance.”
Anderson said Altenburg complained at length about Helmberger and the Timberjay. “We told him he was talking to the wrong people,” said Anderson.
Altenburg had previously appeared at a Vermilion Lake board meeting to advocate for an increase in the township’s subsidy for the Tower ambulance. “But that never came up,” said Anderson. Altenburg, in his written statement, described himself as an “investigative journalist,” but acknowledged when asked by Anderson that he doesn’t work for any publication.
Anderson said he was turned off even before Altenburg made it into the town hall. He said before coming into the building, Altenburg was standing near the door smoking and that he flicked his cigarette butt into the parking lot when he was finished. “If he comes back here, the first thing I’d tell him is to go back out in the parking lot and pick up that butt,” said Anderson.