Representatives from four area townships say they don’t have enough information to commit to contracting with a proposed joint fire and EMS department in the city of Lake Mills, and are frustrated with the city’s handling of the process.
Members from the town boards of Aztalan, Waterloo, Milford and the town of Lake Mills met on Monday, Jan. 16 in a last-minute meeting with city staff members Drake Daily, city manager, city attorney Dan Drescher and city council president Greg Waters. In the meeting, the city shared updates—and the townships aired grievances—ahead of what could be the city council’s finalizing vote on a new service model.
The city aims to create a joint fire and EMS department that can fill the gap left by the non-profit provider Lake Mills EMS, which will cease its coverage of the city and townships in June. That new department could serve the townships as well, if agreements can be reached.
But township representatives said Monday they have been left in the dark throughout the decision process. They also expressed concerns about transparency in their existing contracts with the Lake Mills Fire Department and asked for more financial information before they decide whether to sign on.
This was reportedly the first meeting in months between the townships and the city, as the city tries to determine the future of fire and EMS service in the area.
“We were told we were going to be involved in this process, and after that meeting everything disappeared. You completely shut us out,” Tom Buechel, chairman for the Town of Lake Mills said. “If you’re going to work with the community, they have to be involved in decision making.”
“I have no trust in this process as it’s been handled so far,” Steve Duwe, plan commission chairman for Milford said.
The tense meeting came as the Lake Mills city council was set to vote Tuesday to finalize its staffing plan for the joint department and approve language for an April referendum to fund it.
In budgets drafted by city manager Drake Daily, the city is assuming it will have revenue from agreements with the townships to provide fire and EMS services. But by the end of Monday’s meeting, none of the townships were ready to commit.
Currently, the city and townships pay a per-capita rate to LMEMS for its coverage. That rate has increased in recent years and sits at $17 per person for the first half of 2023, until LMEMS ends its service.
Lake Mills has said they would charge the same rate to area townships for the remainder of 2023, but would likely need to bump the price in years to come. The size of that bump, though, is still unclear.
“I do think the rate would have to go up,” Daily said. “Can I tell you what that number is right now? No.”
That uncertainty is a primary sticking point for the townships right now, representatives said.
“I was hoping that tonight we’d actually have a 3-5 year projection of the per-capita numbers,” Jeremy Ellis, a town of Waterloo supervisor, said. “It’s not getting easier telling our residents every month that we have no updates.”
“I think we’re all interested, but we need to see what the raise is going to be after the rest of this year,” Ellis said.
Daily said he could work on putting per-capita numbers together, but it would be difficult to make promises that rates would not change.
“Just understand that it would be an ongoing conversation about what the city believes it needs to be at,” he said.
The current budget options put together by city staff assume that the townships will sign on for fire and EMS services from the joint department. With property value rates for fire and per-capita rates for EMS, the city is counting on about $390,000 from the townships.
Concerns about transparency
The city already provides fire service to all or parts of the four townships, and has done so for more than two decades. The townships pay the city annually for that coverage, with the fire department’s total budget split among the five municipalities based on the total value of property that lies in the department’s service area.
But representatives from the townships said the city has not been transparent with its budgeting and billing practices in the past, and they raised concerns that a joint department would operate the same way.
When the fire agreements were signed, the city and townships intended to meet annually to discuss those finances. Those meetings stopped some 20 years ago, the township representatives said.
“Every October, there was supposed to be a meeting,” Jim Heinz, a supervisor for the Town of Lake Mills said. “Then it just stopped when (former city manager) Steve Wilke took over. We were just sent a budget sheet that we couldn’t read.”
Larry Christianson, a supervisor for the town of Aztalan, said he would like quarterly meetings with the city to go over fire department information. Lake Mills officials said they would be open to committing to a schedule like that.
“Absolutely that makes sense, and it’s probably something that should have been done for the last 20 years,” said Dan Drescher, city attorney for Lake Mills.
Each year, Lake Mills sends an estimated budget for the fire department that townships use to determine their own finances, Heinz said, but that estimate doesn’t always match the final bill.
“One year not too long ago, [the estimate] was $250,000, and when we got the bill it was $325,000,” Heinz said. “Our budget was short by $75,000 that year and nobody explained why. It’s a moving target, and we never know what to budget.”
Township representatives asked that they be given detailed reports regarding the fire department’s budgeting and the number of calls they respond to in the townships.
Daily, who has only been in his position for about four months and had not yet met some of the township representatives, said he hoped to improve communication between the municipalities going forward.
“I can’t speak to the last 20 years, I can only speak to the next 20 years,” he told the group. “My goal is for all these relationships to be positive going forward.”
Creating a joint department
The Lake Mills city council was set to finalize its budget for the joint department at its Tuesday, Jan. 17 meeting. The city will determine a staffing structure for the department and vote on language for an April referendum.
The council voted in December to direct staff to begin work on a joint department budget, choosing a structure that reduced full-time staffing from what had been recommended by a consultant and relying more heavily on dwindling volunteer rosters. That structure would only use full-time paid staff during business hours on weekdays.
But Daily returned to the council with a recommendation to fully meet the consultant recommendations, using full-time staff around the clock in a larger and more expensive department. Daily said Monday his recommendation was based on conversations with LMEMS and fire department officials about the limits of their volunteer pools.
Both options would likely require a referendum to fund, Daily said in meeting materials.
The council was set to choose between the recommended and reduced staffing structures on Tuesday.