01STOCK_FIRETRUCK_GENERIC

MILTON

A proposed functional merger between the Janesville and Milton fire departments now hangs on a vote by the city of Janesville, bringing the three municipalities another step closer to consolidating fire departments.

The Milton Town Board agreed to the functional merger Monday night, and the Milton City Council voted in favor Dec. 1. It’s not clear when Janesville officials will decide, but they are unlikely to oppose it.

The functional merger essentially combines command staff and functions of both departments and creates a path for full consolidation if a potential referendum passes.

The Milton Fire Department, which is operated by the city and town of Milton, has struggled with staffing shortages for years. Milton and Janesville have shared some services since 2017, but to operate effectively long term, Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes and Milton Finance Director Dan Nelson recommend that the Milton department consolidate with Janesville.

Another option presented in July would preserve the Milton Fire Department but add more full-time employees.

The Milton Joint Fire Commission has been divided on the consolidation idea. Members have raised several concerns, including that the Milton department will lose its identity and cede financial control.

However, earlier this month, the commission voted 4-2 to commit to consolidating the two departments and pursue details of a contract with Janesville.

“That isn’t signing a contract with Janesville. There would still be a contract review,” commission member Bill Wilson said at the commission’s Dec. 9 meeting.

Consolidation has been estimated at $2.35 million, while a standalone department would cost about $2.82 million. Those estimates cover staffing needs, including 15 full-time firefighter/paramedics and various leadership positions. The standalone estimate includes money for accounting, payroll and human resources.

The consolidation plan would require $1 million from all municipalities the Milton department serves, including the city and town of Milton and the towns of Harmony, Johnstown, Lima and Koshkonong. The standalone department would need $1.47 million from the municipalities.

Under both scenarios, a $1.4 million referendum would have to be floated to raise additional money, possibly in November 2021.

So far, three of the four smaller towns have renewed their Milton Fire Department contracts, which include cost increases that are 170% to 209% higher. The town of Koshkonong has yet to renew its contract.

Starting with the 2021 budget, contributions from municipalities will be based on equalized value and factor in how much of the municipality is covered by the Milton Fire Department.

None of the contracted towns is covered completely. The Milton department serves about 80% of Harmony, 74% of Johnstown, 40% of Lima and 5% of Koshkonong.

The 2021 budget includes a $152,238 (208.77%) increase for the town of Harmony, a $25,481 (169.59%) increase for the town of Lima, an $11,642 (142.36%) increase for the town of Koshkonong and a $31,884 (115.20%) increase for the town of Johnstown.

The city of Milton will pay $24,989 more, a 6.38% increase. The town of Milton will pay $55,118 less, a 14.08% decrease.

Disagreement about consolidation was evident at the Dec. 9 Joint Fire Commission meeting. Wilson said the commission will not get the answers it needs unless it commits to pursuing a contract.

“Why should Janesville put lots and lots of time into coming up with a contract unless there’s a serious intent that we want to have a contract?” he asked.

Commission Chairman Jon Jennings and member Beth Drew opposed pursuing a contract.

“In my mind, it’s not whether we should consolidate, but with whom we should consolidate,” said Drew, who mentioned Edgerton as a possible partner because of its similar size and types of responses.

“It is about what our voice is and how we’re able to protect the department that we currently have,” she said.

Commission member Lynda Clark said previous Milton fire chiefs had expressed no interest in consolidating with Edgerton.

Jennings agreed with some of Drew’s comments.

“I do agree that there are some concerns about the future,” he said.

For instance, Jennings said, “You don’t necessarily know how operational expenses are going to increase from year to year.”

With consolidation, he said, “We’re limited in how much say we get in the (budgeting) process if we do consolidate because then we become a contract.”

Milton City Administrator Al Hulick said all municipalities face the same tax levy limits. Significant costs incurred by Janesville must run through those “funnels” before they are presented to the contracted municipalities, he said.

Although contracts between the town of Milton and city of Janesville and the city of Milton and city of Janesville haven’t been negotiated yet, Hulick said he thinks cost based on equalized value is a reasonable place to start.

“If it’s fair for us to ask (our contracted towns) to do it, I think it’s fair for Janesville to ask us to do it, as well,” he said.

Rhodes, Janesville’s fire chief, said the commission could create a finance committee with Janesville to work through the budget every year.

“Whoever you merge with, think about their funding and their resources,” Rhodes said. “If you merge with an organization that is underfunded or limited in funding, what you do is create one big underfunded fire department. If you would merge with Janesville, you would not have that problem.”

Rhodes said he will continue negotiations on a contract, which will be presented to all of the municipalities and the commission.

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