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JANESVILLE

Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes plans to resign in August as fire protection agreements between the cities of Janesville and Milton remain unresolved.

In a letter of resignation from Rhodes to Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag that The Gazette obtained Monday, Rhodes told Freitag he plans to resign Aug. 18—a decision Rhodes said “saddens” him after being at the helm of Janesville’s fire department for about 2½ years.

Rhodes' letter doesn’t give any specific reasons for his resignation, and it wasn’t clear on Monday if he’s taken a new job elsewhere.

“I have been extremely pleased to have served with Chief Rhodes,” Janesville City Manager Mark Freitag said in a press release. “Chief Rhodes was absolutely the right person in the right place at the right time."

Rhodes’ became Janesville’s fire chief in February 2019. He also heads up the Milton fire department.

Rhodes’ notice comes as the city of Janesville, the city and town Milton and a handful of other towns in Rock County are hashing out fire protection agreements with the Janesville Fire Department. Those talks have been fraught as the towns wrestle with a shortage of paid volunteer firefighters and medics and a mounting volume of calls for ambulance services in the municipalities and towns.

Under Rhodes, the cities of Milton and Janesville struck a “functional merger” which was viewed to further galvanize a shared operating agreement between the two fire departments that’s been active since 2017.

In the letter to Freitag, Rhodes indicated that Freitag had been aware Rhodes was contemplating resigning. Rhodes wrote that he and his spouse decided it would “be best for me to resign.”

Rhodes called it a “tough decision” to resign, saying he’d enjoyed working at the fire department and that he’d “made good changes” there.

“There is still much to do, and it saddens me to leave,” Rhodes wrote. “This was never in my plan.”

The resignation letter doesn’t say anything about Rhodes’ future plans.

In an email thread obtained by The Gazette, Freitag on Monday announced Rhodes’s departure, saying the fire chief’s resignation was not a surprise to city administration.

In the press release, Freitag said Rhodes showed leadership on a city task force during the city's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Freitag is recommending Janesville Deputy Fire Chief Jim Ponkauskas be named as interim fire chief. Ponkauskas was a finalist for the position when Rhodes was hired in 2019.

Rhodes’ resignation comes amid uncertainty over Milton and Janesville’s fire agreement, with a possible dissolution of the partnership on the table.

Up to now, the two departments have discussed the viability of maintaining their partnership. However, town of Milton officials have indicated they're looking to at the the possibility of splitting with Milton and pairing up with another fire department, namely Edgerton’s.

On June 18, the city of Janesville sent the city of Milton and the town of Milton a letter saying the shared operating agreement between the three would dissolve by the end of this year.

City of Milton officials have urged the fire departments to keep talking, but Janesville’s decision would press Milton and put a referendum before voters asking for approval of a new, potentially more costly, fire protection contract.

Meanwhile, in late June, the Janesville Fire Department told the towns of Harmony and Janesville that the city of Janesville plans over a three-year period to end what officials call a taxpayer subsidy of fire protection services that Janesville provides to the towns. The subsidy has been in place since 2012.

Last month, Freitag said he believed it’s now time for the towns to shoulder their burden of the cost of fire protection.

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