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JANESVILLE

The town of Janesville and three other towns served by the city of Janesville’s fire department face big hikes in fees for fire protection, rescue and ambulance services starting in 2022.

The city of Janesville plans over the next three years to end a nearly $1 million subsidy that pays the bulk of annual fire protection operations the Janesville Fire Department provides the adjacent towns of Janesville, Harmony, La Prairie and Rock, according to a June 18 letter from the city to the towns’ chairs.

Over the next three years, the city of Janesville plans to shift a growing burden of the cost of fire protection services to the four towns—the city’s aim being to see the four towns fully fund the cost of their protection by 2024.

Under a planned change to the fire protection agreements, the town of Janesville would see the biggest hike in costs, with the amount the town would pay for fire protection jumping from $393,000 this year to about $607,000 in 2022—ultimately increasing expected charges to $1.07 million in 2024.

That’s a 175% spike over what the town now pays for fire protection, although the increase would rise incrementally over the next three years.

A few town of Janesville officials told The Gazette they initially blanched when they learned of the planned fee hikes.

City Manager Mark Freitag said on Tuesday that the shift in the cost burden from the city to the towns ultimately will reduce by $935,000 what Janesville taxpayers pay for fire protection in the four towns—a subsidy that is projected to grow yearly.

Freitag said the subsidy model for town fire protection that the city has used since 2012 has become “unsustainable” as the Janesville Fire Department experiences an increase in ambulance calls. State law also limits how much shared state revenue the city can receive or increase its tax levy to pay for services.

To handle a growing number of EMS calls both in the city and in the towns the fire department serves, the fire department needs to add at least one ambulance to its fleet, Freitag said.

The cost of buying and equipping one ambulance and staffing it with three shifts worth of medics alone could add $750,000 to the department’s costs—and the operational costs would be ongoing.

“Every year, we continue to grow and lead the state in growth. But we can’t even maintain what we did in a previous year, let alone grow to catch up to that expansion,” Freitag said. “So we’re just looking for ways that we can continue to provide great quality service to our residents and certainly to the towns. But in the towns’ case, they need to pay their fair share, and they’ve not been doing that for a while.”

Under the planned contract, the town of Rock would ultimately take on an expected fire protection charge by 2024 of $282,000 while the town of La Prairie will see a charge that same year of $152,000, and the town of Harmony would see an expected charge of $146,000.

In 2021, the increases for Rock and La Prairie would be proportionally smaller than the hike the town of Janesville would see.

Those projected costs will increase over a three-year span based on the assessed value of the town properties covered under contract by the Janesville Fire Department.

The parts of the town of Janesville covered by the city’s fire department are more densely developed with housing than the other towns, which creates more assessed value for individual properties.

Freitag said the city would impose this gradual, three-year shift in costs to the towns until 2024, after which the city would end the subsidy city taxpayers now pay toward town fire protection.

Town of Janesville town Chairman Bruce Schneider said the town just received the notice of the fee increases, and he had not had a chance to dig into the details.

On the surface, Schneider said the increase “doesn’t sound good” for the town.

Gary Fox, a town of Janesville supervisor, said a near doubling of its fire protection costs in a couple of years is “a tremendous change.”

“Frankly, I don’t know where we’re going to get the money to do it,” Fox said. “We haven’t discussed it yet as a town (board), but we’re going to have to see what to do. Because, yeah, it puts us in a hard place.”

The Milton Fire Department has a shared services agreement with the Janesville Fire Department and the city of Janesville through the end of this year. Some towns served by the Milton Fire Department are looking at contract increases similar to those the city of Janesville is enacting.

Freitag said the forces that are prompting the Milton Fire Department to shift costs to the towns are similar to those Janesville is contending with. The town of Harmony, which is mainly covered by the Milton Fire Department, would see fire protection fee hikes from both the Janesville and Milton fire departments.

Fox said while some towns in the Milton fire district have begun shopping around for emergency services through other local fire departments, he believes the town of Janesville has few alternatives to contracting with the city of Janesville for fire protection.

That, Fox said, is in part because the town has miles of private, natural gas pipeline running through parts of it. That presents responsibilities for fire protection that not every local fire agency might be willing to take on.

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