As the city and town of Milton weigh how to transition from a volunteer fire department to a department staffed by full-time employees, cost has always been a consideration.

“The whole causation of the problem is staffing. Our volunteer pool has decreased significantly—and that is a problem across the United States,” Janesville Fire Chief Ernie Rhodes said in an interview Thursday with Adams Publishing Group.

The Milton Fire Department has tried multiple staffing models. The current model with three full-time paramedics and other members paid to be part time or on call is not sustainable, Rhodes said.

“We have to transition to a professional, paid organization,” he said.

Earlier this month, the Joint Fire Commission was given two scenarios: consolidating with the Janesville Fire Department or operating a standalone full-time fire department without Janesville. The city and town of Milton and city of Janesville have shared fire services for several years.

Consolidating with Janesville would require a tax levy estimated at $2.1 million. A standalone fire station is estimated at about $400,000 more.

Both scenarios mean going to referendum for the city for Milton, potentially the town of Milton and the town of Koshkonong in Jefferson County. The 2020 Milton Fire Department budget is about $901,000.

On Thursday, Milton Finance Director Dan Nelson gave the Joint Fire Commission a cost-sharing model based on equalized value. Under that model, costs would be shared by not only the city and town of Milton but also the contracted towns—Harmony, Johnstown, Lima and Koshkonong—based on the percentage of the town that is covered by the Milton Fire Department.

For instance, 80% of the town of Harmony’s fire and EMS service is provided by Milton firefighters.

Although Milton is not technically a fire district, Rhodes said others who have a fire district share costs based on equalized value.

When applied to the 2020 budget, here’s what the cost-sharing based on equalized value would look like:

City of Milton: $391,592 (2020 budgeted contribution) vs. $340,717 (equalized value allocation).

  • Town of Milton: $391,592 vs. $281,624.
  • Town of Harmony: $72,920 vs. $181,711.
  • Town of Johnstown: $27,676 vs. $51,576.
  • Town of Lima: $15,025 vs. $34,276.
  • Town of Koshkonong: $8,178 vs. $17,078.

At Thursday’s virtual meeting, Harmony Town Chairman Jeff Klenz said was the first he was hearing of the possible increased fire costs for the towns.

Although he said he would look into the subject further, “for the town of Harmony, it just seems like a lot of money,” Klenz said. “I would think the people are struggling enough as it is. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Fire contracts with the towns are set to expire at the end of the year.

Under Wisconsin law, towns with populations of fewer than 3,000 are not required to go to referendum for levy increases.

Ballot language for an April 2021 referendum would need to be finalized by mid-January.

The commission took no action Thursday. The discussion will continue with a joint meeting of the city and town of Milton at 6 p.m. Aug. 19.