VernonReporter

Viroqua fire station project faces questions from city council and township partners

VIROQUA, Wis. – The City of Viroqua is in the final stages of designing, and planning out its financing for, a new fire station. The budget for the new facility as it stands right now comes in at around $9.8 million, but a $5.25 million Congressional Directed Spending earmark from Senator Tammy Baldwins office last year, combined with some other sources of revenue have kept the cost to Viroqua taxpayers down to around $3.3 million.

Those other sources of revenue that are currently in the budget to make the project numbers work include the possible sale of the old fire station that is roughly valued at about $500,000, and a contribution from all three of the townships that are severed by, and are partners with, the Viroqua Fire Department. At previous meetings, Viroqua Fire Chief Chad Buros and Viroqua Mayor Justin Running said they have been in discussions with the towns of Jefferson, Franklin, and Viroqua about each town contributing $300,000 to the project.

You can read our previous story about the project and budget , or watch our interview with Viroqua Fire Chief Buros where he explains how the department has grown, why a new building is needed and do a walk through tour of the current facility.

If the current budget for the project stays as it is, and the city borrows a little over $3.3 million for the project, at the current interest rate of about 4.2 percent the city would see a debt payment for the building of around $250,000 a year. That would raise the mill rate about .727, or about 73 cents for every $1,000 in property value. To give an example of what the impact of that would be to property taxes, for a $250,000 home, a homeowner would pay an additional $181.77 a year in taxes. Or about $15 a month for the next 20 years.

At the regular meeting of the Viroqua City Council on Tuesday, Jan. 9, Chief Buros walked the council through a detailed rundown of the current design that he described as about 95 percent complete. Buros described each part of the station room by room and why it was needed and why it was placed where it was.

Following that discussion the council asked about arts of the design that the public has raised questions about. Alderperson Todd Spaeth said the most common questions he gets are about the welcome center or history room, and the sleeping quarters. The current design includes a room at the front of the building that would be used to display historic fire equipment and to increase community interaction. In previous presentations Chief Buros said the welcome center/history piece was incorporated at the suggestion of other fire chiefs when he toured various facilities. Buros said the idea with the rooms is to get the community into the facility and foster recruitment of volunteers.


The discussion on the fire station design starts at around the 33 minute mark and the discussion on the discussion on cost and financing starts at about 1:42

Alderperson Todd Spaeth said he has had questions from the public about that area being included.

“I’ve had several people approach me and want to discuss this project,” said Spaeth. “It seems like the biggest areas of contention with people I’ve talked to they bring up the the sleeping room, which I know you know. I tell them it’s not for today, but someday down the road they probably will be necessary. But the biggest area that people seem to be apprehensive about is the the welcome center area. I guess what I would like to see, I know we’ve explained everything about having this old equipment and stuff in there, but I would like to see some kind of a quote without that, and have that front facade put back. Just eliminate that space completely. Just see what kind of cost savings it would be.”

Viroqua Fire Chief Chad Buros

Buros said he can try to put a number to that change but that becomes complicated because often just removing just a certain square footage does not change the overall cost significantly. Buros also pointed out that many of the historic pieces of fire equipment the city has, including a 1947 LaFrance fire engine, are crammed into a storage a shed collecting dust.

“That’s doesn’t seem to be a concern to the people I’ve talked to,” said Spaeth. “They just don’t seem to see any importance in having a building like this to store it in. I guess, is what I’ve heard.”

The current design also includes four sleeping rooms with four bathrooms. Buros said that was another piece of the design suggested by other fire chiefs. Buros said the rooms would likely be get some use by current their volunteer staff, but they are also a way of preparing for a future that could see a full-time department in the not too distant future. The department has seen their number of yearly calls climb with over 600 calls last year, and according to Buros, there were 35 times last year when the department had more than one call going on at the same time.

Alderperson Dave Tryggestad questioned the need for the rooms and had conflicting information from other fire departments about the need for the rooms. Tryggestad said he toured the same facility in Spring Green that Buros had, which included sleeping rooms in their design, and was told they were not utilized very often.

“You mentioned the three bedrooms or something they got in Spring Green,” said Tryggestad. “You said they’re full all the time. I just wondered where you got that information?”

“From the fire chief,” said Buros.

“Because I was there a few months ago and took a private tour myself and the guy that gave me the tour said one couple stayed there in the last 15 years,” said Tryggestad.

“Well I can give you the chief’s number if you’d like,” said Buros. “I understand David, and if you want to talk to the chief directly I’m more than willing to get you his number. I don’t know why he would say that.”

Buros said Spring Green also has a volunteer department, but also has ambulances at their station, and people stay at their station for various shifts.

“And they do have people stay there,” said Buros.

“Well that’s not what I heard and we will just have to disagree,” said Tryggestad.

Alderperson Kristal Welter, who is a member of the design committee, asked Buros to talk about the welcome/history center part of the design.

“I know that we had talked about that history center a lot and whether it was a good use of space,” said Welter. “As I recall, every chief that we spoke to who didn’t put one in said that was one of their biggest mistakes because they use it a lot for retention.”

Buros said the Tomah Fire Department has a history room at their facility and their chief is a big proponent of including them.

“He said (Tomah Fire Chief) there’s absolutely no way that he would ever build a build a station without one,” said Buros. “There are some that wish that they did, as Kristal said, and retention is a big one. So anytime, like when when someone’s coming to try to decide if they want to join the department or whatever.A lot of times they’re really uneasy, and they don’t really know what it’s all about. And so anytime when you draw, when you can capture someone, and get them excited about, you hear me talk a lot about the the stuff that we struggle with, but there’s a whole list of positive things to be a part of of this organization. So they use it as a tool. They talk about the history. That’s it’s something that they can show them and say this is how we started out with this hand pumper compared to what we’re doing now. This is how firefighters used to fight fires. Whatever it might be. It’s just, it’s kind of a wow effect I guess. You know when someone comes into the building and they’re learning about what they’ve got to deal with, they want to know that they’ve got a a functioning building, a clean building, good equipment.”

Buros said the quality of the department and their equipment is also a part of the relationship with the three townships they serve (Jefferson, Franklin, Viroqua) .

“There are so many good things that I can say about the townships and the city all day long,” said Buros. “And I tell people all the time, they (the townships) support us in our needs in so many ways. We’ve got great equipment. We don’t have to wonder about our fire truck starting. And you get to the call, and will it pump water? Will our air pack fail? I mean, there’s all those things, and so, these types of things, it kind of, that is a piece of that.”

“And I am sure that is a piece of that,” said Spaeth. “I’m sure that that is part of the firefighter retention. But I mean, we just want to know the value of having that on versus the cost savings. To be perfectly honest with you, I think that day room and the rest of the fire department should be, is a wow factor, you know, for retaining firemen. I mean, you’ll agree with that. That somebody walks in there, and then they’re going to say wow, this is really nice. Even without having that (welcome center) I can imagine that happening.”

“You’re not wrong on that,” said Buros.

“Just to get a number to see what it would cost to eliminate that, or I mean the savings to eliminate that part,” said Spaeth. “I’ve had people approach me and and think it’s crazy to have it, so I want to be able to answer some questions if I can.”

Buros said in terms of cost the space the welcome center uses and would cost is comparable to what another bay might cost for an additional fire truck.

“The cost difference between a bay, in the fire apparatus bay or whatever, versus the the square
footage of a history room or welcome center, there’s not a huge, there’s not really a cost difference,” said Buros. “So what I mean by that is, you don’t have two big garage doors on there. You don’t have floor drains. You don’t have some of those pieces and parts.”

Buros said a history room/welsome center would be partially finished but the ceilings would be open and the windows are much cheaper than the garage doors. Buros said the historic items the department has (including a 1947 LaFrance fire engine) is really not of much use if they are not able to display them, or use them.

“It’s in a storage shed,” said Buros. “You’re not going to take the public over there, a group of kids into the pole shed, where you know, it’s with other equipment or whatever, that the city has. It’s just not conducive to the reason why we have that stuff. So it really doesn’t get used where it’s at, other than a parade here and there.”

Buros went on to talk why the room is important to the department.

“When we first talked about the welcome center, story after story after story,” Buros said. “It is like, if you have this stuff, you need to have it available for the people to see, and not only the people, but the firefighters. Right? And so, I don’t know, again, it sounds like kind I’m kind of dwelling on that, but it’s an important room to us.”

City Administrator Nate Torres pointed out that there two aspects of the department that were used when submitting applications for grants, one was that department has been, and will continue to be, a regional training center. And Torres said they are a backup for the county emergency management department.

Viroqua City Administrator Nate Torres

“This was designed that if we ever had to launch an emergency operation center, this building is designed for that,” said Torres. “And if you’re dealing with multi-day emergencies those dorm rooms and other facilities would certainly be used for things like that.”

Torres also pointed out that the architect and designers they have been working with have been advising that Viroqua will at some point likely make the shift to a full-time paid fire department, and that would be a significant cost increase. Torres said anything the city can do to maintain a volunteer department will have significant operational savings.

“Anything to maintain our paid on-call volunteer fire fighter model as long as possible,” said Torres. “My understanding is things like the day room, and the and the welcome center are specifically pivoted to keep that going. So, I can only lean on our subject matter expertise that that stuff matters.”

Torres pointed out that the amount paid to volunteers is minimal compared to full-time firefighters.

“The amount that we pay for in firefighter wages annually is $70,000,” said Torres. “Right? And when you think about that, that doesn’t even really pay for one full-time staff these days. And that’s before the the Township’s portion is taken out. So, in terms of cost effectiveness for the city, the fire department is a very cost effective department. In terms of the human resources and paying for those.”

Buros said the cost savings by not going to a full-time department will allow the city to pay off its portion of the building much quicker.

“What you’re seeing, I didn’t dream this stuff up,” said Buros. “I want you to know that it was all in research. A lot of reading. A lot of station tours. A lot of tours.”

Tryggestad expressed concern over comments made during public comment at a Public Safety Committee meeting earlier in the night that the Town of Franklin may not be able to commit to the $300,000 for the project. Town of Franklin Chairman Berent Froiland said his township may not be able to contribute that amount.

“I just would like to bring to the the committee’s attention,” said Froiland. “I know there’s been some discussions as far as with this fire station, as far as the township’s paying for a portion. I think the ask has been $300,000. I just want to make it a record that the town of Franklin, I can’t speak for the others, but town of Franklin cannot swing that…we certainly have our reservations we can have discussions at different times, but just a just a concern of ours, and just something to bring to your attention.”

“So, where are we at then if all three of them (townships) say no we’re not donating any money?” asked Tryggestad.

Mayor Running addressed Tryggestad’s concerns.

“The chief and I had sat down with the the town chairmen last week,” said Running. “So going back, I’d made the council aware of the ask that we’d asked of them for a month or so ago. And they wanted to go back to their respective townships and talk to the other elected officials there about their other thoughts. Their abilities. How would they structure that sort of thing. And in our meeting last week there was some questions asked about, well this is what you asked for, what are our options? What do options look like? What can we do? Is there any other way to do that? And talking with Chief Buros, and then I talked, to Nate (Torres) a little bit afterwards, getting to the part where we know exactly what this thing’s going to cost before we can really start offering options. If rent is an option. Like if they want an option, what would rent cost? I don’t know because we don’t know the final numbers. So I’d asked the townships at that point, I said we’re in the final stages of putting this thing together. It’s going out for bid within a couple of days of the bid’s coming back let’s get together again and have another conversation. And that’s how we left it.”

Viroqua Mayor Justin Running

Running said he was able to talk with two of the three towns, but had not a chance to talk with Froiland, yet but would be shortly.

“So its my intention to get together with him (Froiland) and bring it back (to the council),” said Running.

“I just think it’s a small ask compared to what we’re asking our taxpayers to pay compared to their amount,” said Tryggestad. “You know each Township for $300,000 compared to what our taxpayers are going to pay? It’s it’s not comparable at all is it?”

The townships do currently pay for their own firetrucks and they pay rent to the city for space in the fire station.

“Much like I’ve heard Nate (Torres) say in meetings, it’s less about the value of what you’re buying and more about the ability to pay,” said Running. “So … if a township doesn’t have, for whatever reason the ability to pay the $300,000, whether they believe, and I have yet to be told from any of the three chairman that it was an unreasonable ask, like I had told the council, but that doesn’t mean that individual Township can afford it. So we’ve got to work through them, they’re our partner. And the townships have been tremendous partners of this, and back to your question earlier David about who owns what trucks. The city couldn’t do what they do without the township trucks and the townships couldn’t do what they do without the city trucks. It’s a very, very, mutually beneficial partnership. So coming at this, and making sure we’re looking at things, before we jump to a conclusion, I think we’ve got to work through this, and we’ve got to work with partners, who are the townships, and if one of them has an an issue with ability to pay, we’ve got to understand that before we can offer them options.”

“Its just hard for me to understand that we may not have the ability to pay either,” said Tryggestad. “But we’re gonna.”

“You’re not wrong David,” said Running. “That’s why this needs to be a continued conversation. It’s very very important that we make it work.”

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  • We’re very supportive of building a larger fire station facility as future costs will only rise. After reading the concern re the reception room and bed/bathrooms, I wondered if there might be a way to keep all the space while reducing costs if those places could be built but left unfinished to some extent. Just a suggestion.

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