Our Views: Milton cannot keep shortchanging its fire services

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Gazette editorial board
August 18, 2015

A consultant's report makes it obvious: The Milton Fire Department has been getting by with too little funding for too many years.

That's a key reason why the department is looking at its third budget overrun in three years.

The solution is obvious, too: Give the department more money. The current funding method isn't sustainable.

Therein lies the problem. The city and town of Milton operate the department equally, and that creates complexity. It doesn't help that the town, with a smaller budget, has less financial flexibility than the city. State-imposed revenue caps further limit options unless communities pass referendums.

The simple answer, then, might be a referendum asking voters for permission to exceed revenue caps every year to fund the fire department at a higher level. But that might require city and town residents to pass separate ballot measures.

In May, the city hired RW Management Group to analyze the department's staffing, organization and budget. The consultant's recommendations shouldn't come as surprises.

In 2007, Fire Chief Loren Lippincott urged a task force to enact full-time staffing by 2011. That never happened. The department still operates without any full-time employees. Even Lippincott earns part-time pay. The department relies on part-time and on-call firefighters and emergency medical responders.

The consultant recommends that the chief be full time and that deputy chief positions become three full-time shift commanders.

The idea is to make it more clear for other personnel who they're reporting to and to improve communication with city and town officials.

The current budget overrun—mainly from personnel working more than budgeted—is approaching $170,000. That's no small amount when the department's 2014 budget was $705,000.

The consultant compared the department to four others in southern Wisconsin and found the others had at least six full-time employees and significantly higher budgets.

Even comparing Milton's department to the town of Beloit's is an eye-opener. Milton's serves a population of about 11,500, while the town of Beloit's serves fewer than 7,700. Milton's responded to 1,205 calls last year, compared to the town of Beloit's 961, yet the town of Beloit department had 10 full-time personnel and a budget of $1.17 million.

Making the funding picture even grimmer is that Milton's fire station is in disrepair, reportedly does not meet code, and replacement remains uncertain.

The consultant also suggested the fire commission is exercising powers beyond those granted in the intergovernmental agreement.

That's a lot of brush fires for town and city officials to put out.

Milton isn't the only area fire department lacking enough money and personnel. Ideally, a Rock County fire district would oversee fire and rescue services. Such a district could save money through shared equipment and reduced administration.

Such a plan would have to overcome the preference of small communities for local control of this important public safety function.

Jeffrey Roemer, the consultant's president, is right. He told a joint city and town meeting last week that the fire commission, town board and city council must work together to find the right path forward.

It was good, too, to hear Milton Mayor Anissa Welch state that while elected officials might not be able to enact all recommendations as quickly as they would like, they need to take the advice seriously.

If Milton wants to thrive and attract new businesses and residents, it can't let another decade pass without proper funding of its fire and rescue services.


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