The future of public safety might require area fire departments to consolidate and restructure into a single entity known as the Rock County Fire District, or something like it.
We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, admittedly, because current law doesn’t treat fire districts as independent units of government. For a large-scale merger to make sense, the Legislature would need to give fire districts the authority to levy taxes and manage budgets like municipalities do.
Fire departments struggling to recruit volunteers and pay for new equipment need more flexibility, and the Legislature can empower them by allowing to join fires districts with taxing authority.
Janesville’s new fire chief, Ernie Rhodes, knows how fire districts work. He moved here from Missouri, where fire districts are commonplace, some of them covering entire counties.
Rhodes met with The Gazette Editorial Board last week and broached the topic while discussing his home state. To be clear, he’s not advocating for any immediate changes to Wisconsin statutes. Indeed, he’s been on the job for only two months and still is learning how Wisconsin works.
Nevertheless, he sees value in consolidations.
“I think a county-wide fire department is not a bad thing,” he said. “I think mergers and consolidations are a good thing.”
He’s in favor of the agreement created under his predecessor, Randy Banker, for the Janesville fire chief to oversee the Milton Fire Department. It’s not a merger, but the arrangement allows both departments to undergo similar training and to better coordinate responses to fire and medical emergencies.
To survive, area fire departments might need to go beyond what Janesville and Milton are doing.
State legislators are aware of challenges facing fire departments, and a study committee issued a list of recommendations in 2017 to address, in particular, staffing shortages. Some of the recommendations include giving tax credits to volunteer firefighters and reducing the length of time they must serve to collect retirement benefits.
Curiously, the committee investigated and considered draft legislation for creating fire districts with taxation authority, but the state Joint Legislative Council voted against recommending it.
That’s too bad because many of the legislative council’s recommendations are incremental and won’t reverse the staff-shortage trend. Giving cities, villages and towns the option to radically restructure and share resources via a fire district would qualify as real reform.
This reform isn’t about raising taxes but about shifting taxation from municipalities to fire districts governed by a group of elected commissioners. These districts would be held accountable to voters just like city council and school board members are today.
Staffing shortages and financial challenges wouldn’t disappear under fire districts, and we don’t claim these districts are a panacea. But well-organized districts could make these problems more manageable.
Some municipalities would refuse to join or create a district, and that’s fine, but the Legislature should at least give them the option to do it. This model works well in Missouri and several other states, and it could work here, too.