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Fire Board finds compromise on fire truck loan
Boscobel and Rural
Boscobel and Rural Fire Department

BOSCOBEL - Municipalities in the Boscobel and Rural Fire District may take up to three years to make good on a one-time assessment to pay for a rebuilt pumper truck. Ken Cornish, who represents the Town of Marietta on the fire district board, proposed the compromise and passed with two no votes: Gary Kjos representing the City of Boscobel and Al Wester representing Hickory Grove.

The original assessment, which would have paid for the $400,000 truck in one payment, brought complaints from officials at smaller municipalities like Marietta, who feared the one-time assessment would push their real estate taxes over the levy limits imposed by the State of Wisconsin. 

Marietta town clerk Clifford Monroe addressed these concerns again at the fire board meeting on July 6. “You’re talking about this at a time when inflation is through the roof. Our fuel prices are through the roof. We’re going to be lucky at the end of this year if we don’t end up having to borrow money just for operational expenses.”

Truck budget short

Each year, the board set aside $50,000 to keep the fire department’s fleet of six trucks up to snuff with fire inspectors. National fire standards put the lifespan of a truck at 20 to 25 years. 

But the truck fund set-aside failed to keep up with inflation. In 2020, the board found that refurbishing one of the trucks would cost $400,000—more than the district had paid for the truck 20 years prior. The board approved a seven-year bank loan to cover the cost of the rebuild. But rather than spend the truck fund on loan payments, they asked the 11 municipalities in the district to pay off the loan in a lump sum. 

The board, which has representatives from all 11 municipalities, began raising the annual set-aside for the truck fund in 2021. It’s currently at $65,000 a year. But Monroe questioned the board about the failure to increase it in prior years. “From my point of view as a taxpayer, this is a mismanagement on your part, not ours,” he said. 

Former Fire Chief and now Assistant Chief Todd Fischer pushed back, reminding Monroe that Marietta and the rest of the municipalities have voting representatives on the board. 

“It’s not mismanagement,” said Fischer. “We ran on that same budget for years. Your representatives have sat here, they have voiced their opinion, and that’s why the budget stayed down. We had to do what we had to do at that time. We’ve been able to replace those trucks and keep good equipment out there. We’ve been able to provide the service that you’re expecting from this department. That’s not mismanagement. That’s keeping your taxes down and doing everything we could.” 

A win-win

The compromise permits towns like Marietta, which faces an assessment of just over $50,000 for the truck loan, to spread that across three years, reducing the impact on real estate taxes in their municipalities. 

Communities like the City of Boscobel, which set aside $200,000 from the American Rescue Plan covid stimulus bill to cover their assessment, can go ahead and make a single payment on the truck loan. 

At the same time, the fire board’s truck fund will continue to grow, independently from the loan assessment, with an eye toward the next replacement.

Loan or levy?

A key point of discussion at the meeting centered on Wisconsin’s tax levy restrictions, which are state-level mandates intended to slow real estate tax increases. These limits can only be exceeded in two ways: A voter referendum to raise taxes, or through a bank loan, which is excluded from the limits.

“We are all stuck in that same problem,” Fischer said. “The levy limits were put on absolutely everybody, from the school to the township to the city council. This is how our hands have been forced, and everybody here is in the same situation. We’re not here trying to make punitive decisions. We’re trying to make decisions that we all have to live with.”

Monroe argued against raising taxes “through the backend” with a bank loan. “To me, that shouldn’t be how you run a government,” he said. “Let’s try to get it on the front end, and get it done right.” 

A single-year assessment would have exceeded the town’s levy limit. With the payments spread over three years, Marietta won’t have to either borrow money or launch a voter referendum. 

“I can go to the taxpayers a lot easier and say, ‘Our fire dues are going up, but it’s not a skyrocket.’ They are more likely to say, ‘Okay, that makes sense.’”

Bigger problems ahead

The troubles at the fire district result in part from crosswinds of rampant inflation, the economic collapse following the pandemic lockdown, supply-chain issues, and Wisconsin’s restrictive tax code. But the problems of expensive equipment and short budgets are going nowhere. 

The next piece of equipment in line for an upgrade is the fire department’s ladder truck, which turns 30 next year. The truck passed an inspection and can be kept in service another five years, according to Paul Beck, who serves as secretary/treasurer to the district board. 

“We got a get-out-of-jail-free card,” he told the board. “But we’ve got to replace that within five years now. A new ladder truck, that’s $1.5 million. That’s only one of the problems. This building here, we’re going to have to do something with it. Most ladder trucks out there are 100-foot ladders. Guess what? We can’t get 100-foot arial ladder in here because the doors are not high enough or wide enough.”

Clearly, resolving the current loan and increasing the truck budget will come nowhere close to raising the $300,000 a year needed to buy a $1.5 million truck in five years. 

Instead, the board created a 501c3 non-profit and is meeting with grant writers to start pursuing other funding sources. 

Additionally, outgoing City Administrator Misty Molzof told the board that the City of Boscobel is including the fire district in its emerging capital improvements plan. Meetings to develop this plan are in the very early stages and will include public comment as they unfold. 

“Through that process, we’ll be working with Southwest Wisconsin Regional Planning Center, and they do some grant writing. Once you have a plan in place, then they know what grants to write and what to look for from the grants that are out there,” she said.