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Several Walworth County communities will decide fire/EMS referendums

Bruce Vander Veen, chief of the Sharon Fire/EMS Department, says many Walworth County communities are at a “crossroads” when it comes to funding emergency services.

Voters throughout the county will have a big say in what the future looks like through various referendums on the Nov. 3 ballot.

“We need to do something about this,” Vander Veen said. “Getting worse at this time is very real. And I think it’s very important that people understand. Even though it’s tough economic times, there’s never a perfect time to do this. Our need is real today, and we really can’t put this off.”

The villages and towns of Sharon, Darien and Walworth are seeking to exceed their levy limits to establish and maintain a third-party contract for full-time paramedic-level emergency medical services.

Vander Veen, who is on various committees related to emergency services, said the referendums have to pass in all communities to move the plan forward.

“I’m actually cautiously optimistic,” he said. “I think people will see the need. Our problem is that as fire departments we have not normally said that we’re having problems. And a lot of people just don’t know.”

The town of Darien is the only one of those municipalities to not have a question on the ballot because Vander Veen said the town already has the necessary finances.

Elkhorn, the town of Sugar Creek and the town of Geneva also have referendums seeking more funds “for the purpose of enhanced fire and emergency medical services.”

Elkhorn City Administrator James Heilman said last year that, “I can unequivocally say that the service we provide today is not adequate or is not something that I will just accept. We need more. We need better protection than what we’re offering today.”

The departments in Walworth County and elsewhere have struggled with staffing and funding for some time now.

Vander Veen said if all the referendums are approved, the communities will decide on a name for the shared services.

After signing contracts with Metro Paramedic Services, residents could then expect to see more reliable service, he said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the area, he said departments have seen recruitment drop to “almost nothing.”

“Who would want to do what we’re doing, right?” he asked.

In the last year, he said the call volume dropped off but has returned to more normal levels.

He said his department in Sharon has had 10 calls this year where it failed to have enough staff present and had to rely on mutual aid.

“That’s very concerning,” he said. “That’s a trend that has gotten worse in the last year.”

If the referendums pass, Vander Veen said personnel will respond to a call within 90 seconds. Currently, having a volunteer leave his job or home could take five or 10 minutes.

Additionally, he said the department is currently at an EMT basic level.

Staffing at a paramedic level—which will be the case if the referendums succeed—gives first responders more capabilities to improve health care.

Paramedics have more training and can dispense many more medications, he said. That is crucial for rural communities such as those in Walworth County because they are farther from hospitals than those near Janesville or Beloit.

The new paramedics would staff stations throughout Walworth County. Vander Veen said customers won’t know the difference as paramedics will be committed to this response area.

“It’s an economically viable plan. It’s cost effective. It’s operationally effective,” he said. “It’s a good plan.”

Court blocks extension of Wisconsin absentee ballot deadline


A federal appeals court on Thursday blocked a decision to extend the deadline for counting absentee ballots by six days in battleground Wisconsin, a win for Republicans who have fought attempts to expand voting across the country.

If the ruling stands, absentee ballots will have to be delivered to Wisconsin election clerks by 8 p.m. on Election Day if they are to be counted. The ruling makes it more likely that results of the presidential race in the pivotal swing state will be known within hours of poll closing.

Democrats almost certainly will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. A spokesman and an attorney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under state law, absentee ballots are due in local clerks’ offices by 8 p.m. on election night. But Democrats and allied groups sued to extend the deadline after the April presidential primary saw long lines, fewer polling places, a shortage of poll workers and thousands of ballots mailed days after the election. Wisconsin, like much of the rest of the country, is already seeing massive absentee voting for November. As many as 2 million people are expected to vote absentee.

U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled last month that any ballots that arrive in clerks’ offices by Nov. 9 will be counted as long as they are postmarked by Nov. 3. In that ruling, Conley noted the heavy absentee load and the possibility it could overwhelm election officials and the postal service.

The 7th Circuit Court judges initially upheld Conley’s ruling Sept. 29, rejecting the Republicans’ standing to intervene. After the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed that standing, the same three-judge panel delivered Thursday’s ruling.

Justices Frank Easterbrook and Amy St. Eve voted to stay the order with Ilana Rovner opposed.

“The State Legislature offers two principal arguments in support of a stay: first, that a federal court should not change the rules so close to an election; second, that political rather than judicial officials are entitled to decide when a pandemic justifies changes to rules that are otherwise valid,” the majority wrote. “We agree with both of those arguments.”

Rovner, in a blistering dissent, highlighted the coronavirus threat to citizens in Wisconsin, currently one of the nation’s worst hot spots. Conley came up with a “limited, reasonable set of modifications” to election rules to preserve “the precious right of each Wisconsin citizen to vote,” she wrote.

“Today, in the midst of a pandemic and significantly slowed mail delivery, this court leaves voters to their own devices,” she wrote. “Good luck and G-d bless, Wisconsin. You are going to need it.”

Easterbrook was appointed by Ronald Reagan, St. Eve by Donald Trump. Rovner was appointed by George H.W. Bush.

Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, part of the Republican leadership that successfully pressed the appeal of Conley’s ruling, called the reversal “a huge win for preserving the integrity of our election process in Wisconsin.” He called an extended counting period “a preposterous setup” that would undermine confidence in the election.

The Rev. Greg Lewis, whose Souls to the Polls group is among the plaintiffs, reacted by urging people to vote.

“Our votes matter,” Lewis said. “This is precisely why Republicans are trying so hard to keep us from voting.”

A state Democratic Party spokeswoman and an attorney for Democrats didn’t immediately respond to messages seeking comment.

President Donald Trump won Wisconsin by less than 1 percentage point—fewer than 23,000 votes—in 2016. Polls have shown Democratic challenger Joe Biden with a slight lead in the state, but both sides expect a tight race.

F. Robert Russo Jr., giving the thumbs up, helps disabled runners in a 5K run in Havana.

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Rock County eyes 8.8% budget increase


In a year when COVID-19 is causing government budget gaps, Rock County’s fiscal outlook, thanks in part to a growing rainy-day fund, appear in good shape.

Under the proposed 2021 county budget, spending would grow 8.8% in large part because of bigger paybacks on loans and a slew of projects to county facilities and roads.

Rock County Administrator Josh Smith on Thursday presented the county board its first look at the upcoming budget, which is on pace to be finalized in mid-November. It forecasts an increase in spending of $17 million.

Continued upward bumps in county property values would support an expected $2 million levy increase. Under the proposed budget, residents might shell out about $16.40 more on their next county tax bill.

The spending increase is mainly tied to a 116% spike in spending on county facilities, a $7.6 million jump in county loan repayments and $5.2 million for road resurfacing projects on County A, County F and County K.

Altogether, those items account for about 20% of Smith’s proposed $212 million budget.

The county aims to borrow $22 million for facilities work in 2021 as it is set to pay off $8.7 million in existing debt. Two big projects include an $11 million project to relocate the county’s IT center and upgrade IT equipment there and at the county’s 911 center.

Smith said that while that increase in spending in those specific categories “might appear significant,” he pointed out that a continued rising tide in property values has taken the edge off the tax increase the average resident could see.

And he said the county should see a small decrease in spending on operations—by far the biggest portion of the budget.

That’s projected even as Smith proposes to use new public utility shared revenue from the new Alliant Energy power plant in the town of Beloit to boost wages and hire a new training employee at the county’s 911 communications center. The move is a strategy to reverse a recent trend of worker turnover at the 911 center.

The 911 center ranks lower on pay than a number of other similar countywide agencies in the region, the county has reported.

Smith said the county would receive about $1.08 million in shared revenue from the Alliant expansion, the first such payout the county will see since the power utility completed its expansion earlier this year.

That money can be spent any way the county chooses. Smith proposes the county spend $247,000 on “workforce needs” at the 911 center, including increased wages and a new “training and quality assurance manager” position.

Smith said that unlike other municipal or county governments in the region, Rock County is projecting a slight uptick in federal and state shared revenue, a source that fuels about one-third of the county’s overall revenue.

Smith noted, however, that some federal and state funds might ultimately not be available to the county in large part because of the economic effects of the pandemic.

But he said the county has $9 million in unassigned general funds—rainy day cash—built up since 2014 in case the county faces revenue shortfalls driven by the pandemic.