By Lynn Binnie
Whitewater Banner volunteer staff
The City of Whitewater Common Council at its August 2 meeting voted to proceed with the drafting of a referendum to exceed the levy limit by the amount of $1,000,000 to be placed on the November 8 general election ballot. Steve Hatton, Finance & Administrative Services Director, presented the council with the rationale for which he was recommending this action in order to fund the expenses that have rapidly risen in order to provide the required level of Fire and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) staffing to meet community needs. Since the referendum language was not yet available, the council decided, with the counsel of City Attorney Wally McDonell, to postpone the final vote on the matter. It was anticipated that a special meeting would soon be called for this purpose.
As was indicated in a previous Banner post, beginning on July 30 the city’s Fire and EMS services are now being provided by a municipal department rather than by the independent not-for-profit Whitewater Fire Department, Inc. (WFD) WFD has capably served the city since its founding in 1871, but, as has been the case with nearly all volunteer fire departments across the state, staffing challenges under the Paid-on-Call model made it increasingly difficult for the department to respond to increasing call volumes particularly for emergency medical services. Over the past year WFD migrated to a Paid-on-Premises (POP) model for EMS, where four positions are now staffed twenty-four hours a day, providing a two-ambulance response at all times. Recruitment is improved as reliable hours can be provided, and as a number of employees will become eligible for health insurance and retirement benefits.
At a special July 28 Common Council meeting, Hatton had given an extensive presentation regarding the recent escalation in costs for providing Fire and EMS Services. Total operating expenses in 2021 were $1,004,095. The WFD budget for 2022 was $1,509,341, but it is projected that the actual operating expenses will be approximately $2,016,000. Additionally, the department has vehicles and other equipment for which the estimated replacement cost is nearly $8 million. That equipment is expected to be replaced on schedules that vary from 5-30 years, and to fund that replacement an additional $384,000 would be needed annually. At that meeting Hatton indicated that he was still researching methods that other municipal departments that serve multiple constituencies use to allocate the cost of service. Whitewater’s department serves in whole or in part six towns besides the city. As of the July 28 meeting Hatton’s suggested method was to establish the contributions of the city and the towns based on equalized property value. Utilizing this method would allocate approximately an equal split to the city and to the combined towns. Under that method the city’s share would be approximately $880,000, or an increase of approximately $700,000 per year. See this post for further information on the July 28 meeting.
At the August 2 meeting, however, Hatton indicated that based on further research he was recommending that the allocation of expenses to the city and the towns be based on a blended method, with 25% based on equalized property value and 75% based on EMS call volume. This is the method that will be used in the new Edgerton/Milton Fire District. It was found that over the past five years approximately 80% of our EMS calls were for locations in the city. Blending the call volume with the property value resulted in an allocation of 73% of the cost of service to the city. This represented in an increase of approximately $998,000 per year, resulting in the one million dollar referendum recommendation. It is recognized that none of the towns will be likely to be able to fulfill their requested contribution for 2023, particularly since the deadline for approving a referendum for that year is August 31. Consequently Hatton’s recommendation is to request that WFD use its fund balance to cover the shortfall of revenue for next year.
The average assessed value of a home in the city is approximately $206,000, with the median value being about $194,000. The annual property tax increase for a $200,000 home that would result from passage of the proposed referendum would be approximately $302 in Walworth County and $306 in Jefferson County. The resulting revenues would support the staffing of four Emergency Medical Technicians round the clock, with the intention of ensuring that two fully staffed ambulances are available at all times to meet the emergency medical needs of residents in the city and surrounding towns.