How it Works: Holmen’s public safety referendum

HOLMEN, Wis. (WKBT) — On November 8, the Village of Holmen and Town of Holland are asking residents to approve a public safety referendum to fund police and fire-EMS.

In this segment of “How it Works,” News 8 Now’s Ken Kosirowski explores the budgetary constraints that make municipalities turn to the ballot to maintain critical services.

When they look down at their ballots, voters in the Village of Holmen and Town of Holland will see referendum questions asking permission to increase their municipal tax levy to enhance public safety.

“The levy is the portion of the budget that isn’t paid for by external resources,” said Karl Green, UW Extension and local government educator.

A levy is an amount municipalities can place upon their residents via property taxes. Under current state law, there are caps in place to keep towns from raising property taxes too much. A town by law can only increase its levy amount based on yearly new construction.

“Whatever your net new construction percentage is, that’s the percentage you can increase your levy by,” said Green.

But Department of Revenue data shows new construction rates fluctuate quite a bit. Holmen has seen its population skyrocket and overall property value has doubled in the last ten years, but net new construction percentages aren’t enough for Holmen to keep pace with its growth.

And since other forms of revenue distributed by the state to the local level have been declining, a place like Holmen turns to the only other legal way to increase a levy: referendum.

“What it’s ultimately doing is pitting municipal services between each other,” said Green.

The Village of Holmen’s $1.3 million levy increase is to hire more full-time police and full-time firefighters. Holmen police and firefighters say current resources push staffing levels to the limit.

“We have more emergencies to cover with less people to cover them,” said Jeremy Cook, a firefighter with Holmen Area Fire Department.

For the fire district covering the Village of Holmen and Town of Holland–

“We currently have six full-time people, working two people per shift on three shifts to provide 24/7 coverage,” said Cook.

Cook says it’s a dangerous number, because OSHA laws include a two-in, two-out rule. Two firefighters can only go inside a building to save lives if there are two other firefighters outside.

“If we show up to somebody’s house that’s on fire, we can’t go inside to make an aggressive interior attack on a fire or try to rescue somebody trapped inside,” said Cook.

With a passed referendum, the fire district could avoid that.

“Go from two people per shift to four people per shift,” Cook said.

Just down the road at Holmen Police–

“We currently employ 13 full-time officers,” Lieutenant Cody Spears said. “Most communities our size will have 20-some officers.”

Those 13 officers are on six-days on, three-days off shifts, but only a couple are on the same shift to patrol the village.

“Unfortunately we’re one of those resources that you don’t really need us until you really need us. When that time comes, you hope we’re available,” said Spears.

As populations grow, so do the number of emergency calls–problematic when staff size is already minimal.

“We’re running into more and more overlapping calls where we get called out for one emergency, and while we’re tied up with that emergency, we’re getting another call somewhere else,” said Cook.

It happened just last week.

“We had one patrol unit working second shift working a car fire with Holmen Fire Department, and during that car fire, a shots fired call came out, and they had to respond to that,” said Spears. “And they actually had to call in the third shift patrol officer early.”

Holmen Village President Patrick Barlow has spearheaded informational sessions for voters to make the issues clear.

“I don’t think any leader in any community loves the chance to go out and say we want to raise your taxes,” said Barlow. “At the same point in time, we’re obligated to provide the services residents need. We would not be asking this unless we really felt we need it.”

And if the voters agree it’s needed–

“It’s going to be a game-changer for us in law enforcement, where maybe we can be more proactive instead of constantly reactive,” Spears said.

Officials say personnel cuts would likely have to be made if the referendum fails.