A study commissioned by the city of Milton found that the city would be best served financially by a fire and emergency services merger with the city of Janesville and that extending the merger to surrounding towns would help the city save even more.
A representative of the Wisconsin Policy Forum that conducted the study presented it to Milton city officials July 6. The forum analyzed three scenarios: The city of Milton having its own standalone fire department; the city of Milton merging services only with the city of Janesville; and the city of Milton merging services with the city of Janesville and four more surrounding towns.
The analysis found:
The standalone model, while retaining the independence of the Milton fire department, would cost city of Milton taxpayers the most, including $2.15 million in an initial capital outlay and a $1.36 million operating budget (cited dollar estimates from the study are high-end estimates). Because of projected increases in Janesville pay rates, however, the difference in cost could narrow in the longer term. Fire and EMS response times would likely be improved.
A merger between the cities of Milton and Janesville and the towns of Milton, Harmony, Lima and Johnstown would boost staffing for the entire region and potentially reduce expenses for all parties. This option would require substantial negotiations on the part of all parties to determine contractual charges, cost allocation formulas, and funding of apparatus and other equipment.
The forum recommends such negotiations commence immediately. The group’s work on other merger proposals has shown that many fire departments that rely on part-time staffing are struggling and that opportunities to create regional service models with full-time staffing are becoming increasingly attractive for those communities despite a loss of local control.
The analysis did not attempt to sort out ownership and future disposition of capital assets, did not consider station upgrades, and did not consider impacts of new union contracts or pay scales.
Chris Lukas, who a member of the Milton and Janesville fire departments, said he appreciated the report but said there were no suprises.
When the city and town of Milton started with shared services with Janesville in 2017, he said he worried that people would think all the fire department’s problems were solved.
Call volumes are high and the resources of both fire departments are stretched, he said.
Lukas, who is a battalion chief with the Janesville Fire Department and recently stepped down as a battalion chief in Milton, said he supports as many full-time employees in stations as possible.
“I would like to see some good discussion,” he said. “I would really like to see the town (of Milton) and the city (of Milton) come back together and even get some of the fire departments that are involved in some discussion and let’s talk about this, let’s see where we can go.”
The town of Milton, which operates the Milton and Milton Township Fire Department with the city, has been exploring other potential emergency services solutions.
“I think one of the points that the report’s trying to drive home is that communities need to work together and help each other out,” Lukas added. “If two can do it, why not three? Why not four? ... I think we started out moving in a good direction and kind of broke apart. I would really like to see everybody sit back down at the table and move forward.”
Milton Mayor Anissa Welch said the city is willing to try new ways of delivering fire and emergency services.
“I think if we wanted to throw in the towel, we would have given our notice to dissolve the agreement with the town of Milton on June 30. ... I don’t think anybody from the city has closed any doors on anything,” she said.
(The next deadline for the town or city of Milton to opt out of the intergovernmental agreement they have with each other is June 30, 2022.)
Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said the city needs to choose its preferred path forward.
“That’s going to be the most difficult part of this conversation,” he said. “How do we make that determination — do we discuss pros and cons? Are there alternatives within the options?”
Another question will be how will the preferred model for fire/EMS services be funded and a likely solution is a referendum in April 2022.
The shared services contract between the city of Milton and the town of Milton and the city of Janesville ends at the end of the year, he said. And in about three months, the city needs to prepare a budget.
“We need to choose a preferred model, and we need to do that sooner rather than later,” he said. “We kicked around with it at the fire commission level for nine months, votes were taken and then it all came undone. We can’t afford to do that again.”
Hulick said Friday the study was an exercise in vetting and potentially affirmating the two models that had kind of previously existed last year but were scaled down to just include the city of Milton.
“We want to establish confidence in the process and I think we were successfully able to do that,” he said.
The analysis, however, does not tell the city what to do, he said.