JEFFERSON — Jefferson voters will determine the future of the city’s public safety this spring.
City council members approved the referendum’s presentation to the public Tuesday. It asks voters whether they approve an increase to the annual property tax levy to fund six, full-time EMS, fire-trained personnel and provide a competitive wage for volunteer fire department staff.
The referendum comes in response to increasing calls for service and outdated staffing structures that inhibit the department’s ability to adequately and sustainably respond to calls for service, city officials said.
“The Fire and EMS Department has historically relied on volunteer fire staff and both full-time and paid on-premise EMS staff as part of its operations,” said Jefferson City Administrator Tim Freitag. “However, the volunteer workforce is now aging, fewer volunteers are signing up to join, and the majority of volunteers work outside the city during normal business hours. Not only that, we continue to lose both volunteers and full-time staff to salaried jobs or jobs with higher wages.”
The Jefferson Fire Department relies entirely on volunteer staff, according to a release from the city. Over the past 10 years, calls for service have increased by 102%, while the number of volunteers has decreased by 28%. In addition, only 12% of fire department volunteers are located in the City of Jefferson and able to respond to emergencies during the workday. Many work outside of the city and would have to commute back to answer a call — increasing emergency response times.
An additional six full-time EMS fire-trained staff would enable the department to have the minimum staffing required to reliably respond to both fire and EMS calls for service 24/7 and better meet current and future call volume demands, city leaders said.
The Jefferson EMS Department is staffed by both full-time and paid-on-premises staff. In 2022, EMS services were requested 1,347 times, a 38% increase since 2013, according to city statistics.
“The department continues to lose staff to full-time salaried jobs or jobs with more competitive wages at nearby hospitals, clinics and even other fire and EMS departments in the region,” the release said. “If city residents approve the referendum, the tax levy in 2023 — and each year going forward — would increase by $500,000 to cover the cost of six additional full-time EMS fire-trained staff and provide a competitive, hourly wage for volunteer Fire Department staff. This would result in an estimated property tax increase of $75.72 annually, or about $1.45 per week, per $100,000 in assessed value on a home, based on 2021-2022 valuations.”
That means a house valued at $200,000 would pay an additional $151.44 per year.
The referendum question that will appear on the Tuesday, April 4 ballot reads:
“Under state law, the increase in the levy of the City of Jefferson for the tax to be imposed for the next fiscal year 2024 is limited to .395% which results in a levy of $4,633,031. Shall the City of Jefferson be allowed to exceed this limit and increase the levy for the next fiscal year 2024 for the purpose of staffing and compensating Fire and Emergency Services Staff, by a total of 10.792%, which results in a levy of $5,133,031, and on an ongoing basis, include the increase of $500,000 for each fiscal year going forward?”
If the resolution fails this spring, the problems won’t go away, said the city’s volunteer fire chief, Ron Wegner.
“Sue Reinen, Jefferson EMS manager and I, brought this to our city leadership that this is a system in crisis and is not sustainable. Collectively, the referendum is our plan to try to remedy the situation,” Wegner said. “This problem will not go away. It will only get worse.”
The problems in Jefferson are not unique and plague fire and EMS operations throughout Jefferson County, the state and nation. Among other municipalities in the area to wrestle with the problem have been the cities of Lake Mills, Whitewater and Fort Atkinson, as well as the Village of Johnson Creek and the Town of Aztalan.
Unless state government steps in and does something to allow municipalities to have appropriate funding to hire new personnel and compensate existing staff, city leaders will have to continue to bring the staffing issue back to voters for a referendum, Wegner said.
“This is a system that has, historically, been supported by volunteers and civic-minded people and that pool is drying up, or has dried up,” he said. “Those are the facts in every community.”
The Jefferson Fire Department has been in existence since 1871 and its model of volunteerism has been in place since that time.
“That is no longer a sustainable model,” Wegner said, adding EMS is no different. “In EMS, the education and skill sets are tremendous, so the referendum is based on the concerns of the managers in fire and EMS and we want to get ahead of this problem.”