BOSCOBEL - Some of the municipalities in the Boscobel and Rural Fire District are running hot about a plan to pay off a fire truck loan in one year instead of seven.
For the Town of Marietta, whose board discussed the matter at its meeting on Monday, June 27, 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 from the fire board,” said Reggie Lomas, one of Marietta’s supervisors. “Our taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for their oversight.”
The fire board hosts a public meeting at the firehouse on July 6, 6 p.m. to discuss and vote on the loan repayment.
The dustup has its roots in 2020, when the district board went shopping for a pumper truck to replace a 20-year-old vehicle slated for retirement.
They got a bad case of sticker shock: They could buy a new one for $750,000, or they could strip the old one to the chassis and rebuild it for $400,000.
That was more cash than the board had on hand. Since the 1990s, the board has set aside $50,000 each year for truckreplacement. It wasn’t near enough.
“It should be double that,” said Paul Beck, a retired Milwaukee firefighter who serves as the board’s secretary and treasurer. “Trucks have doubled to tripled in the past 20 years. The rebuild costs more than the original new piece of apparatus, no joke.”
Still, guidelines from the National Fire Protection Association specify that trucks be replaced every 20 to 25 years. With six trucks in the Boscobel firehouse, that means a new truck purchase or rebuild every four-to-five years. So the board voted to take out a seven-year bank loan to cover the $400K rebuild.
There’s just one problem. Instead of saving for the future, the board is now spending its equipment budget on loan payments. The math is simple enough: by the time the loan is repaid, there won’t be anything left to replace the next fire truck in line.
Their solution? To pay off the loan in one chunk, and start saving for the future.
A statewide problem
If it’s any comfort, Boscobel is not alone. Rural fire districts across Wisconsin face similar dilemmas.
“The struggles are real,” said Todd Blaser, who serves as the President of Wisconsin State Firefighters Association (WSFA) and is himself a fire chief. “It’s a challenge that everyone is feeling all around the state.”
The challenge hits smaller rural communities like Marietta especially hard. “Towns,” in Wisconsin, are a legal municipal entity that stand apart from villages and cities. Most take primary responsibility for road maintenance and solid waste, both big-ticket expenses, while relying on neighboring jurisdictions for public safety.
Towns have been especially squeezed by changes in Wisconsin’s taxation and revenue sharing laws over the past two decades, according to a report released this month by the nonprofit independent research organization Wisconsin Policy Forum.
Most of Wisconsin’s towns are facing a three-pronged threat, according to the report: State aid (through shared tax revenue) is shrinking, when adjusted for inflation. But tax increases are tightly restricted by the legislature. And debt is on the rise, as townships look to make up the difference.
In the early 1990s, property taxes made up 37 percent of township budgets on average, and state aid 45 percent. Today, those numbers have flipped, while borrowing in towns has risen 44 percent in less than a decade, according to the report
Levy limits hamper
Intricacies in Wisconsin’s tax code make it harder for towns like Marietta to raise real estate taxes through a levy increase. In 2011, the legislature tied municipal tax increases to the value of new development, in an effort to prevent tax hikes on existing homes and businesses.
But unlike more urbanized areas like the City of Boscobel, towns see little new development.
“Somebody might build a new house once in a while, but that’s minor,” explained Charlie Baumeister, the fire board’s president, who also serves as a supervisor for the Town of Watterstown. “Some years you can raise the tax levy one percent or something, which doesn’t amount to much, but it’s better than nothing. Nobody likes to pay taxes, but they still like to drive on a nice road—and that’s better than doubled in cost.”
Increasing housing values, ironically, cause another problem: Real estate taxes are supposed to be based on 90 percent of the fair market value of the property, which is calculated by comparing the tax-assessed value against similar homes that have sold in the area.
Right now, Baumeister explained, the housing boom has that number out of whack. “We are down to about 80 percent. You can do that for like four years, and then you gotta hire somebody to reappraise the valuation, and that’s another $30,000.”
At the end of the day, when faced with the fire board assessment, towns like Marietta have two choices: Ask the 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 amounts to about $225,000.
The City of Boscobel provides half the budget. The rest is divided among the other ten towns and villages and is calculated based on the value of each municipalities’ property that is protected by the fire department. Marietta’s valuation means it’s the second-highest contributor after the City of Boscobel, with the towns of Marion, Scott, and Boscobel (which excludes the city) following close behind.
If the fire board votes to collect a one-time payment, the City of Boscobel intends to use the bulk of its remaining funding from the federal American Recovery Plan Act, which was crafted to help communities recover from the pandemic.
Many rural fire districts in the state face not only budget shortfalls, but also a lack of volunteers. That’s not the case in Boscobel. And even the towns that are disgruntled about the one-time assessment to pay off the loan concede that the department is robust.
“We’ve probably got the best fire department around,” said Steve Peer who chairs the Town Board of Marion. “But they just keep spending. If you reach the point where you are the best, why keep spending?”
Even if the fire board resolves the immediate budget crunch resulting from the truck loan, the issue of the rising costs of protective services is only worsening, according to Blaser of the WSFA.
“It’s just a really crazy time, and protective services are expensive,” he said. “It really boils down to what is it the community expects and what are they willing to pay for.”
Fire districts, including Boscobel’s, are seeking 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 has met with a grant writer to start exploring supplements to the municipal assessments for long term equipment investments.
And while some may complain about the district’s expenses, nobody wants to scrimp when it comes to the next fire. In fact, at the very moment the town supervisors of Marietta were discussing the assessment issue, the truck in question was part of the fleet battling a blaze on Dwight Street in Boscobel.For Beck, it comes down to the effectiveness and safety of the firefighters. “I’m not saying we need a fleet of brand-new trucks with gold trim or the Taj Mahal for a firehouse,” he said. “But we gotta take care of our guys.”