BOSCOBEL – Some of the municipalities in Boscobel and the Rural Fire District are getting carried away over a plan to pay off a fire truck loan in one year instead of seven.
For the town of Marietta, whose council discussed the issue at its Monday, June 27 meeting, the move would mean a one-time payment of about $75,000, or three times the town’s typical annual contribution.
“This is an oversight by the fire commission,” said Reggie Lomas, one of Marietta’s supervisors. “Our taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for their surveillance.”
The fire board is holding a public meeting at the fire station on July 6 at 6 p.m. to discuss and vote on loan repayment.
The dust has its roots in 2020, when the district council went to buy a pump truck to replace a 20-year-old vehicle destined for retirement.
They had a bad case of sticker shock: they could buy a new one for $750,000, or they could strip the old one to the frame and rebuild it for $400,000.
It was more money than the council had on hand. Since the 1990s, the council has set aside $50,000 each year for truck replacements. It wasn’t close enough.
“It should be double that,” said Paul Beck, a retired Milwaukee firefighter who serves as the council’s secretary and treasurer. “The number of trucks has doubled or even tripled over the past 20 years. The rebuild costs more than the original new device, no kidding.
Yet National Fire Protection Association guidelines state that trucks should be replaced every 20 to 25 years. With six trucks in the Boscobel fire station, that means a new truck purchased or rebuilt every four to five years. The board therefore voted to take out a seven-year bank loan to cover the $400,000 reconstruction.
There is only one problem. Instead of saving for the future, the council is now spending its capital budget on loan repayments. The math is quite simple: by the time the loan is paid off, there will be nothing left to replace the next fire truck in line.
Their solution? Pay off the loan all at once and start saving for the future.
A statewide problem
If it’s any comfort to you, Boscobel is not alone. Rural fire districts in Wisconsin face similar dilemmas.
“The struggles are real,” said Todd Blaser, who serves as president of the Wisconsin State Firefighters Association (WSFA) and is himself a fire chief. “It’s a challenge that everyone feels across the state.”
The challenge particularly hits small rural communities like Marietta. “Towns” in Wisconsin are a legal municipal entity distinct from towns and cities. Most bear primary responsibility for road maintenance and solid waste, two major expenses, while relying on neighboring jurisdictions for public safety.
Cities have been particularly pressured by changes to Wisconsin’s tax and revenue-sharing laws over the past two decades, according to a report released this month by the independent nonprofit research organization Wisconsin Policy. Forum.
Most cities in Wisconsin face a triple threat, according to the report: state aid (via tax revenue sharing) declines, when adjusted for inflation. But tax increases are strictly regulated by the legislator. And the debt is growing, as the cantons seek to make up the difference.
In the early 1990s, property taxes accounted for an average of 37% of municipal budgets and state aid 45%. Today, those numbers have changed, while borrowing in cities has increased by 44% in less than a decade, according to the report.
Withdrawal limits hamper
The intricacies of Wisconsin’s tax code make it harder for cities like Marietta to raise property taxes through increased levies. In 2011, the legislature tied municipal tax increases to the value of new developments, in an effort to prevent tax hikes on existing homes and businesses.
But unlike more urbanized areas like the town of Boscobel, the towns see little new development.
“Someone can build a new house once in a while, but it’s minor,” said Charlie Baumeister, fire board chairman, who is also a supervisor for the city of Watterstown. “Some years you can increase the tax levy by one percent or something, which isn’t much, but it’s better than nothing. Nobody likes paying taxes, but they still like driving on a nice road, and that’s better than double the cost.
Rising home values, ironically, pose another problem: property taxes are supposed to be based on 90% of the property’s fair market value, which is calculated by comparing the assessed value to similar homes sold in the region.
Right now, Baumeister explained, the real estate boom has thrown that figure out of whack. “We are down to around 80%. You can do that for about four years and then you have to hire someone to reassess the assessment, and it’s still $30,000.
Ultimately, faced with the fire commission’s assessment, towns like Marietta have two choices: ask voters to raise taxes by referendum or take out a loan to spread the debt over time.
No shortage of volunteers
Marietta is one of 11 municipalities in the fire district. Each contributes one or two representatives to the fire board, which oversees the department, and each kicks in a share of the district’s annual budget, which comes to around $225,000.
The City of Boscobel provides half of the budget. The rest is split among the other ten cities and towns and is calculated based on the value of each municipality’s property that is protected by the fire department. Marietta’s assessment means it is the second largest contributor after the town of Boscobel, followed closely by the towns of Marion, Scott and Boscobel (which excludes the town).
If the fire board votes to collect a one-time payment, the town of Boscobel intends to use most of its remaining funding from the US federal stimulus package, which was designed to help communities to recover from the pandemic.
Many of the state’s rural fire districts are facing not only budget shortfalls, but also a lack of volunteers. This is not the case at Boscobel. And even towns that are unhappy with the single assessment to repay the loan concede the department is robust.
“We probably have the best fire department there is,” said Steve Peer, chairman of Marion City Council. “But they keep spending. If you reach the point where you are the best, why keep spending?
Long term solutions
Even if the fire board solves the immediate budget problem resulting from the truck loan, the problem of rising protection service costs is only getting worse, according to WSFA’s Blaser.
“It’s just a really crazy time and protective services are expensive,” he said. “It really comes down to what the community expects and what they’re willing to pay.”
Fire districts, including Boscobel, are looking for creative solutions.
Some departments, according to Blaser, are combining forces with emergency management and police departments to create hybrid public safety departments.
Locally, Beck said the district recently formed a nonprofit fundraising arm and met with a grant writer to begin exploring supplements to municipal assessments for long-term investments in equipment.
And while some may complain about the district’s spending, no one wants to skimp on the next fire. In fact, at the very time Marietta town supervisors were discussing the issue of the assessment, the truck in question was part of the fleet battling a fire on Dwight Street in Boscobel.
For Beck, it all depends on the efficiency and safety of firefighters. “I’m not saying we need a fleet of brand new trucks with gold trim or the Taj Mahal for a fire station,” he said. “But we have to take care of our guys.”