The joint fire commission, made up of elected officials from the town and city of Milton, is looking at how it might move away from a volunteer fire department to a department staffed by full-time employees.
In an interview with the Milton Courier, Ernie Rhodes, who is the chief of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department and the Janesville Fire Department, explained it like this: “The whole causation of the problem is staffing. Our volunteer pool has decreased significantly – and that is a problem across the United States.”
Rhodes said the requirements for being a volunteer firefighter are significant.
The Milton and Milton Township Fire Department has tried multiple staffing models.
The current staffing model with three full-time paramedics and other members paid to be part-time or on standby is not sustainable, he said. “We have to transition to a professional, paid organization.”
The scenarios being considered would five full-time firefighters/paramedics on duty.
Commission chairman Jon Jennings asked if the proposed staffing level is necessary for the volume of calls that Milton receives.
“Having a three-person engine company and a two-person ambulance company – you can’t downsize that configuration anymore,” Rhodes replied.
Regardless of the call volume, he said, “The threat and the risk are still there.”
Looking at the number of captains, Rhodes said, “Every department needs a training officer, an EMS officer and a fire marshal.” The captains also would handle those responsibilities, he said.
Call volume also is increasing, he added, with the department responding to a little over three calls per day on average.
“It’s hard to sustain a volunteer call base when you’re running that many calls per day,” he said.
On July 15, the commission was presented with two scenarios: consolidating with Janesville Fire Department or having a standalone full-time fire department (without Janesville).
Consolidating with Janesville would require a tax levy estimated at $2.1 million (a 134% increase). A standalone department is estimated to be about $400,000 more. Both scenarios include $250,000 from EMS collections.
City of Milton Finance Director Dan Nelson said, “we have not sat down with Janesville’s administration to vet out any of the numbers, to make sure nothing is missing.” He said the cost estimate is based on a conversation with Milton’s deputy chiefs and Rhodes.
If the fire commission opts for consolidation, City Administrator Al Hulick pointed out, “The Milton fire commission doesn’t exist anymore.
Whether a seat would be afforded to other taxing jurisdictions would up to Janesville, he said.
Both scenarios mean going to referendum for the city for Milton, potentially the town of Milton and the town of Koshkonong.
The 2020 budget is about $901,000. The lowest of the two scenarios would increase the budget by $1.2 million.
Cost sharing based on equalized value
Ownership of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department is 50-50. Towns served by the department under an annual contract include Harmony, Johnstown, Lima and Koshkonong.
Nelson presented the joint fire commission with a cost sharing model based on equalized value.
That’s the estimated value of all taxable real and personal property in each taxation district.
Costs would be shared not only the city and town of Milton but the contracted towns based on the percentage their town is covered by the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department.
None of the contracted towns is covered entirely by the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department. About 80% of Harmony is covered by the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department, 74% of Johnstown, 40% of Lima and 5% of Koshkonong.
Though Milton is not technically a fire district, Rhodes said others who have a fire district share costs based on equalized value.
School districts, counties and technical colleges also receive tax dollars based on equalized value.
Nelson said this methodology is commonly utilized and is widely accepted.
The amounts are updated by the Department of Revenue annually on or around Aug. 15 of every year.
“The costs are representative of the property being protected by the department,” Nelson said.
Equalized value changes (plus or minus) based on a calculation that the state of Wisconsin does, he said.
When applied to the 2020 current budget, here’s what the 2020 budgeted contributions vs. equalized value looks like:
• City of Milton $391,592 vs. $340,717
• Town of Milton $391,592 vs. $281,624
• Town of Harmony $72,920 vs. $181,711
• Town of Johnstown $27,676$ vs. $51,576
• Town of Lima $15,025 vs. $34,276
• Town of Koshkonong $8,178 vs, $17,078
These numbers do not include a potential referendum.
Town of Harmony chairman Jeff Klenz, at Thursday’s virtual meeting, said was the first he was hearing of the possible increased cost for towns based on equalized value.
Although he said he would look into the subject further, he said, “For the town of Harmony, it just seems like a lot of money. I would think the people are struggling enough as it is. I don’t know what the answer is.”
Contracts with the towns are set to expire at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, the commission will need to choose between consolidating with Janesville or having its own standalone fire department. Then they will need to decide when to go to referendum and for what amount.
Under Wisconsin law, towns with populations of fewer than 3,000 are not required to go to referendum for levy increases.
An April 2021 referendum (the only election scheduled for 2021), ballot language would need to be drafted by mid-January.
But Nelson said, “In my opinion, we’d want to have the language pretty much locked in stone before Christmas.”
The discussion of how the commission will move forward will continue with a joint meeting of the Milton city council and Milton town board at 6 p.m. Aug. 19. The meeting will take place online.
To view the July 30 meeting or see the PowerPoint presentation go to https://www.milton-wi.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1023.