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Viroqua City Council approves budget for new fire station

VIROQUA, Wis. – Construction of a new Viroqua fire station moved a little closer to reality on Tuesday night when the Viroqua City Council unanimously approved a $9.9 million budget for the project, over half of which is paid for by the federal government. The project will be put out to bids this month but the council approved the budget with the understanding that they still have the option to reject bids if all of the pieces of financing, including the contributions from the townships they serve, are not in place when the bids are considered.

The Viroqua Fire Department has been contemplating the possibility of a new station ever since the police department moved to their own building several years ago. Once the police department was out the building they had shared with the fire department, the fire department began to make a more detailed assessment of what they would need to do to stay in their building for at least the near future. That process revealed the buildings deficiencies (originally a beer warehouse) and made them realize that remodeling or adding on would be almost as expensive as building new, and may not give them enough space for long term needs.

Viroqua’s fire station pictured before the police department moved to their own building on Nelson Parkway

Once the department began doing some preliminary work to assess what their space needs were they began to look for sources of funding. They applied to their federal representatives for what is know as Congressionally Directed Spending dollars. These are funds sent to specific high need projects in a legislative district and funded through whatever federal agency most closely aligns with the project. The Viroqua Fire Station project was awarded $525 million through Senator Tammy Baldwins office at the end of 2022.

Once those federal dollars were awarded the city began to seriously plan for a new building. They hired architect and builder Keller Inc and narrowed the location for the new building to the land the city already owns in the industrial park just north of the Wild West Days grounds.

You can read our previous stories about the process of designing the building, and the discussions surrounding that here, and you can watch our interview with Fire Chief Chad Buros about the growth of the department and the need for the new building here.

Much of the need for space has been the large increase in calls for a department that almost all volunteer with only two paid staff. The number of calls this year is expected to exceed 600 and Chief Chad Buros said the city is getting the services of about 32 volunteers with a total payroll expense of about $70,000-$75,000 a year. Buros told the council the idea with the design is to keep the department a volunteer department for as long as possible and avoiding the expense of full time paid staff. A large day room, sleeping rooms and history room/welcome center are designed to foster volunteers and increase recruitment.

Below is a breakdown of where the funding for the project will come from. At the chart shows the $5.25 million federal money from Senator Baldwin’s Office covers almost 53 percent of the project.

The three townships served by the department (Viroqua, Jefferson, Franklin) were each asked to contribute $300,000. The townships and the city have had a longstanding relationship where they share equipment and training, and the city is currently paid some rent to house the township vehicles. If the towns are able to contribute their share that rent would be eliminated until the building is paid for in 20 years. There has been some push back from some town officials on their ability to make that amount of contribution, but at Tuesday nights meeting Mayor Justin Running and City Administrator Nate Torres said they had met this week with the town officials and city’s bond advisor to work through ways to finance that amount. Both officials said that those were “positive” discussions.

The city could sell the old fire station building to help offset the cost of the new building and there are interested buyers according to city officials, but that decision would likely wait until the department has officially moved. An estimated value of $500,000 for the old building has been included in the budget.

At Tuesdays meeting Torres and Chief Buros said they have gone through the plan with the designer and they have managed to cut about $160,000 from the estimated cost. Changes were made to the heating that switched from in-floor heat to infrared and the front facade was simplified and reduced. Devin Flannigan with Keller Inc who is helping design the building said there is really now where else to cut and the design is about as basic as it can get. Buros and Torres added that there are also number of “alternates” in the estimate, or items that could be cut when the bids are in and the overall cost of the project is more clear. Things like new furniture or other amenities could be eliminated if the final numbers are higher than expected.

Below is the estimated cost to the city of Viroqua taxpayer. The project would cause a mill rate increase of about 69 cents for every $1,000 in property value. As an example, a homeowner with a $250,000 home would see a tax increase of $172 a year, or about $15 a month for 20 years. Long-term debt payments for the city would be about $250,000 a year. Those calculations are based on an estimated interest rate of 4.2 percent but that interest will not not be set until the city borrows money through a bonding process. If the cost of borrowing is less, the debt payments for the project could also be lower.

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