Milton City Council on March 30 voted to look at two options for fire/EMS services going forward: complete consolidation with the Janesville Fire Department or a standalone fire department that would not include Janesville or the town of Milton.
Currently, the town and city of Milton have 50-50 ownership of the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department. The Joint Fire Commission, made up of three city and three town government representatives, oversees the fire department.
The city council had not previously been presented with the option of a standalone fire department without the town.
In a special meeting, City Administrator Al Hulick presented three options for fire and EMS services. The council decided not to consider the option first presented in July and December 2020 that includes financial contributions from other municipalities.
“It’s not that we’re not interested in what the towns do (or what Janesville does), but at the end of the day, the decision is the city of Milton’s, and the city of Milton’s alone to make,” said Hulick.
Ultimately, city of Milton voters will make the decision because all options presented March 30 will require the city of Milton to go to referendum.
“Janesville has told us that at the end of this year, they are done with the shared services agreement,” Hulick said. “Something has to change. We cannot stay the same.”
The two fire departments have shared services in some form since 2017. A “functional merger,” combing command staff and functions of both the Janesville and Milton and Milton Township Fire departments, took place at the start of 2021 and creates a path for complete consolidation.
Staffing shortages have long been a problem for the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department as it moves farther and farther away from being a volunteer department. Numerous staffing models have been implemented and today the department employs three full-time firefighters/paramedics (one per shift) and pays others to be at the station or on call.
Hulick pointed to studies and agendas talking about how to address staffing in Milton.
“The first time we talked about $15 an hour was August 2020, six months after we adopted a staffing model that had $10 an hour,” he said. “It’s been a process that’s evolved and sometimes it’s evolved very quickly.
“The fire commission has tried very hard over a number of years to figure out a way to make this work.”
Wages and benefits increased 152% in the past seven years. That, Hulick said doesn’t include payment to the city of Janesville for administrative services.
“The fire commission has attempted to stay with the market, to try different staffing models, to try full-time people,” Hulick said.
In seven years, the total fire department budget increased more than $400,000, representing an increase of 66% percent.
“Those increases to the wages and budget are not sustainable,” he said.
Now, Hulick said robust conversations need to take place.
“We need to continue to move forward,” he said. “I believe it is our council’s opinion that we should chase solutions, not dollars.”
In a March 8 letter to city of Milton and Janesville officials, town Chairman Bryan Meyer said the town in addition to negotiating with Janesville is seeking to negotiate with other departments, possibly Edgerton.
After hearing this, the Milton City Council March 16 voted to negotiate unilaterally with Janesville.
“We cannot as the city of Milton negotiate on behalf of other entities,” Hulick said.
If the town of Milton went another direction, he said, “the city of Milton residents needed some fire/EMS protection.”
If other are entities are interested, Hulick said they can negotiate with Janesville as well and the city of Milton would welcome that.
At the March 17 Joint Fire Commission meeting, town commission members wanted to go into closed session to discuss union negotiations and changes to the intergovernmental agreement, the city commission members did not.
“There was a lot of uncertainty about where things were going: discussion of a union negotiation for a department that may not exist in six months, changes to the intergovernmental agreement that we weren’t even aware of,” Hulick said.
At the March 30 meeting, council members shared their thoughts on a path forward. Many expressed concern that the consolidation model would mean no ambulance in Milton, but instead a fire truck with advanced lifesaving equipment. Council member Bill Wilson suggested there might be an option to an option (to include an ambulance).
Regardless, the city council was prepared to go forward without the town. “The city really does have to act somewhat independently regardless of the direction we go,” Wilson said. “We can’t go to referendum on the basis of hoping (other municipalities) will participate.”
The virtual meeting began with 43 people in attendance including officials from the town of Milton and other towns.
Responding to a question from city resident Milton Whitford about estimated revenue (EMS collections), Hulick said it’s $250,000 if the town of Milton and the existing contracted towns are involved in consolidating with Janesville and $85,000 with only the city Milton.
Commenting on increasing wages, town of Milton resident Rob Calhoon, who’s been a member of the fire department on and off, said the city and towns for decades got “a heck of a deal.” Moving from a paid-on-call, volunteer department to a career fire department, Calhoon said the numbers are going to go up and a lot of other fire departments can relate.
The next city council meeting was scheduled for April 7 due to the election. On the agenda is possible action on a proposal from the Wisconsin Policy Forum relating to fire and EMS options for the city.