May 19—As talks about merging fire and emergency medical services departments amplify, legislators this week will unveil a bill that would give tax credits to volunteer firefighters and EMS workers.
State Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, is among the bill's authors. The bill would allow volunteer firefighters and EMS workers to receive refundable tax credits for equipment purchases and for education-related activities and travel.
Nass is working on the bill with state Sen. Patrick Testin, R-Stevens Point, and state Reps. Jeffrey Mursau, R-Crivitz, and Treig Pronschinske, R-Mondovi. The authors are expected to introduce the measure after a press event Tuesday, said Mike Mikalsen, Nass' chief of staff.
Mikalsen said the bill will "significantly" increase state spending, but he would not say by how much. He said the credits could be included in the 2019-21 state budget or in a standalone bill.
Discussions have been swirling around the state's dwindling supply of volunteer firefighters and emergency medical technicians for years.
In 2016, Nass chaired the Legislature's ad hoc Study Committee on Volunteer Firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician Shortages. The committee examined issues related to shortages in those professions, particularly in rural areas, and recommended a host of bills in 2017.
Support for the credits among the public likely will be widespread, Mikalsen said. But broader suggestions to "encourage consolidation" of fire and EMS departments are more controversial.
Mikalsen said taxpayers are demanding expanded, higher-level care from EMS departments. As a result, the state must encourage local governments to look at merging services while addressing increased costs, Mikalsen said.
That could mean departments and local governments might have to surrender some control to "get to a more regionalized system with better services for the taxpayer," Mikalsen said.
"There is a lot of support in the Legislature to kind of do an all-of-the-above approach to how we assist volunteer firefighters, volunteer fire departments and EMS," Mikalsen said. "... Are the credits going to be the only solution? No."
The bill comes as members of Walworth County's Fire/EMS Study Committee, an advisory committee, meet to address strains on local departments. Among the solutions discussed have been improvements to dispatch and consolidation.
Walworth County has 16 fire and EMS departments. Of those, 10 primarily are staffed by paid-on-call members. Lake Geneva, Walworth, Elkhorn, Fontana, East Troy and Bloomfield have some form of full-time fire and EMS staff.
Walworth County Administrator Dave Bretl said the committee hasn't yet identified a "smoking gun" for the county's shrinking supply of volunteer firefighters. But he said a lack of funding partly is to blame.
"There's a levy cap right now that is great for controlling taxes. On the other hand, funding is a significant problem with fire/EMS," Bretl said.
Bretl said volunteer fire departments had a robust system for years. But local governments now are wondering how to direct funds to fire and EMS under tight levy caps, Bretl said.
He also questioned if departments should be given financial incentives to merge.
Mikalsen said parts of Walworth County are growing rapidly, and the number of people and calls are leading to "significant stress" on local fire and EMS services. He said other counties are facing similar strains, including Rock, Jefferson, Racine and Kenosha.