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Cambridge voters will see two station referendum questions

Constrained by the levy cap, Village Board has struggled in recent years to fit rising fire and EMS costs in its annual budget

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Village of Cambridge voters will see a pair of fire and EMS station expansion questions on the ballot in April.

The Cambridge Village Board voted unanimously at a special meeting on Dec. 29 to add a second question to cover future Cambridge area fire and EMS operating expenses.

Both questions will be advisory, meaning the Village Board can overrule the election results. Village President Mark McNally has pledged to follow voter will.

The first question asks to proceed with funding Cambridge’s portion of the $6.5 million construction and land purchase that would triple the size of the existing station on West Main Street in Cambridge and spread it onto the adjacent site of a Pizza Pit restaurant and small house.

The Town of Christiana has bought the restaurant property in a deal with the four other municipalities represented on the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission – Cambridge, Rockdale and the Towns of Oakland and Lake Mills.

If the expansion goes forward, the five would split the $6.5 million land purchase and construction cost.

Based on its equalized value, about 25 percent of the $6.5 million cost, or about $1.67 million, would be Cambridge’s responsibility. Another 49 percent, or $3.18 million, would be funded by Oakland. About 20 percent, or about $1.3 million would come from Christiana; 3.5 percent, or about $227,500 from the Town of Lake Mills; and 2.5 percent, or about $162,500, from Rockdale.

The other municipalities are also now working toward referendums; the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission voted at a special meeting on Dec. 22 to use common language for the construction and land purchase ballot question.

Cambridge is the only one of the five that is considering a second question for operating expenses.

The second question on the ballot for Cambridge voters would seek to exceed the state levy cap to fund increased operating costs for EMS and fire into the future, including the cost of operating the larger station but also potentially other costs like equipment purchases and full-time EMS and fire staff.

The Cambridge Area EMS has added some full-time paramedics over the past couple of years. The fire department remains all-volunteer but questions have arisen about whether full-time firefighters might someday be necessary.

The state levy cap limits the amount a municipality can increase its tax levy year-over-year to the net value of new construction in the prior year.

Constrained by the levy cap, the Village Board has struggled in recent years to fit rising fire and EMS costs in its annual budget.

For 2021, the Cambridge Community Fire and EMS Commission asked for about $184,000 from Cambridge. That was a $15,000, or 8.6 percent, increase over the $169,000 that the village was asked in 2020 to contribute for fire and EMS.

Under its 2021 levy cap, out of an overall $1.2 million budget, Cambridge in 2021 was allowed to raise its tax levy just $34,000 over 2020.

In 2020 and again in 2021, the Village Board voted to not fix any village streets in order to fund fire and EMS, and made other cuts, as well.

Village Board members discussed on Dec. 29 specifically seeking to exceed the levy cap by $50,000 a year. In the end, the board voted to not set a specific number yet, until it can talk more with its financial advisor.

The village must specify a number before Jan. 26, when its final referendum language must be submitted to the state of Wisconsin.

Village Administrator Lisa Moen said the Village Board will have to vote one more time before Jan. 26 to set the final language for both referendum questions, with dollar amount included, after consulting with its financial advisor, Ehlers, Inc., and asking more questions of the fire and EMS commission.

Village Board member Ted Kumbier the second question would intentionally cover general future fire and EMS operating expenses, rather than simply seeking funds to operate the expanded station.

In other matters on Dec. 29, the Village Board voted to reorganize two village departments.

The change combines the utility and public works departments, and combines a utility superintendent and public workers superintendent into one public works director position who will report to Village Administrator Lisa Moen. A part-time laborer, a full-time laborer and a water & sewer operator will continue to report to the public works director. All public works employees who will also get a 5 percent raise in 2021.

The changes were unanimously recommended by the village’s public works committee.

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