Facility needs clash with tight budgets in Milton
The need for new public safety facilities in Milton might prompt some consolidation of space. A future facility might house both the police and fire departments. Kyle Geissler reports. You can read more in Wednesday's Janesville Gazette.
MILTON In 20 years, Milton’s mayor wants residents to be proud of the 2010 city council for taking a long-term view of the city’s facilities.
He wants the city to stop putting money into aging buildings and instead take advantage of low interest rates and construction costs to build a new public works building and a joint police/fire station.
“The city basically has ignored building new facilities,” Mayor Tom Chesmore said. “You can only neglect things for so long. We’ve stuck a lot of money in these structures just to keep them so people can work out of them.”
City council members and the mayor agree that something must be done about Milton’s aging facilities. But they disagree about how far to go and how much to spend during a time of economic hardship.
The issue isn’t new. A 2005 study said the department of public works eventually will need a new building and advised the council to think carefully about investing in the existing building. City employees shuffle snowplows, trucks and other vehicles nearly every day in the department garage to get vehicles in and out.
A 2008 study of the fire station, jointly owned by the city and Milton Township, said the building lacks sleeping space, storage area and facilities for female firefighters. The building has cracks over the doors, and water seeps in through the concrete blocks.
Fire Chief Loren Lippincott already has applied for two grants that could help remodel or rebuild the station and is waiting to learn the results, he said.
The police station also has significant limitations, including a lack of space for evidence storage, Chief Jerry Schuetz said. The evidence area is in the station’s garage, which isn’t heated, so officers take space heaters with them in the winter to work with evidence.
The city approved $15,000 in its 2010 budget to fix the station’s leaky roof.
The building has run out of space as the city has grown and technological advances have given officers more responsibilities, Schuetz said.
“Simply put, we’ve just outgrown this facility,” he said.
Facilities versus funds
Chesmore would like to see the city address all the problems at once by planning a new public works building and combined police/fire station.
The budget included $27,000 to study the public works building, and Chesmore would like to see a police/fire feasibility study this year, too.
“If we could borrow enough money to build two buildings and still keep us in good shape fiscally … I’d be all for it,” he said.
The public works building and fire station are on Madison Avenue near Merchant Row, an area the city has targeted for business development. If the city tears down the buildings and builds on other municipal land, that leaves two prime spots for private development, Chesmore said.
Council member Brett Frazier’s jaw dropped when he heard Chesmore describe his vision during the Nov. 30 budget hearing, he said.
“I don’t just blurt things out all that often, but the word ‘wow’ just jumped out of my mind,” Frazier said. “I couldn’t believe that he would think this is a good idea but secondly that he would say it.”
Frazier, who has emphasized fiscal conservatism in his time on the council, would approve of a new police/fire station if the fire department gets a grant to help cover the costs, he said.
“It’s far less of a slam dunk to build a brand-new fire department that’s going to last for the next 50 years if we don’t get that grant,” he said. “I’m not sure the city is in a position to do that.”
If the city and township build a new fire station, he thinks the public works department should move into the existing fire station.
“At the very least, that buys us another 10 to 15 years until we’re at a critical state where we need to replace the DPW building,” he said. “It just seems like such a no-brainer.”
Other council opinions range across the board.
Council member Dave Adams said he’s not sure it’s wise to combine the police and fire stations, though he hasn’t made up his mind yet. The city would have to work out a lot of issues with the township, which owns half of the fire department but has its own police department and station.
Adams is in favor of a suggestion by Lippincott to build two fire stations, one on either side of the train tracks that divide the city.
“It’s a more expensive option, no doubt about that, but it would serve the people better,” Adams said.
Right now, a train could block firefighters from getting to an emergency south of the tracks, he said.
Other council members acknowledged the problem but said they don’t think it’s realistic for Milton to have two fire stations.
“I don’t think that it’s economically feasible,” Lynda Clark said. “We’re a volunteer fire department.”
Repair also could be an option for one or all of the facilities, City Administrator Todd Schmidt said.
“Considering all of our options includes looking at repairing facilities and maintaining the status quo,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Gazette. “Understanding those costs and implications will be part of the research and analysis.”
Much depends on whether the fire department gets a grant to help build a new station, said council member Fred Hookham.
“If we can get some money, that makes the whole process much easier,” he said. “If we don’t get the grant, I really struggle to decide how much we can build.”
Hookham said he’s not in favor of building everything at once if the council decides to build new facilities.
“I think we need to begin doing something, but there’s a little too much on the plate,” he said.
But Clark said the city should have addressed its buildings long ago and can no longer put it off. She invited residents to schedule tours of the fire station and public works building if they don’t understand the need.
“The public is pretty much aware of the condition of our buildings, and certainly anyone is welcome to come and tour the buildings at any time during the open hours so that they can see for themselves,” she said.