The Manitowish Waters town board held a public hearing Sept. 12 with regard to forming a four-town emergency medical service (EMS) district. Manitowish Waters, Boulder Junction, Presque Isle and Winchester are the four towns involved.
Nearly everyone who spoke during the hearing supported the idea of creating a four-town EMS district.
EMS service director for the Manitowish Waters Fire Company Jessie Mabie was one of the first to speak.
Mabie, who has played a large role in the effort to merge the four towns’ EMS, said the north Lakeland area has seen a continued increase in calls year over year.
Because only two emergency medical technicians (EMT) for Manitowish Waters live in town and the rest in surrounding areas, Mabie said response times can range between 20 to 45 minutes, sometimes even an hour.
She agreed with the speaker prior to her and said “that’s totally unreasonable for somebody who’s having a medical emergency.”
“We do do our best, but everybody has a job, everybody has a family,” Mabie said. “We can’t continue to do this without any type of support. So that’s why we came to the towns and said ‘We need some help.’ We can’t continue this, and we’ll be without EMS soon if we don’t do something. So that’s where this all came from.”
As Mabie alluded to, the idea to form a shared EMS district came two years ago as emergency calls continued to rise and the amount of people able to volunteer continued to dwindle.
“We live far away from a hospital,” Mabie said. “And there’s a lot of things that can be done for you, if you are the one in the ambulance on your way to the hospital.”
Steve Herzberg, an EMT with the Manitowish Waters Fire Company who also lives part-time in Sonoma County, Calif. spoke after Mabie.
He explained the recommended plan drafted by a third-party company the four towns contracted with, Strategic Management and Consulting (SMC).
SMC is a consulting firm that assists with various EMS and fire department issues. Co-founders Dana Sechler and Dan Williams worked for the state’s Department of Health Services EMS Office — Williams as the bureau chief and Sechler as the ALS/paramedic program coordinator.
“The effort that has gone into this plan to taylor to these four towns is exemplary,” Herzberg said. “Not only will we have a more reliable service, we’re gonna try to up the level of care to paramedic service, so we don’t have to wait for paramedics to come up the highway when they’re available to give us a higher level of service.”
He said besides people supporting the four town consolidation, another way people can help is by training to become first responders themselves.
“All I can tell you is there are no new EMTs joining us in these four towns,” Herzberg said. “We’re losing people, we’re not gaining people. So, we need both more people and a better setup.”
There was one member of the public who said he wasn’t sure if he was for or against the idea to form an EMS district. He said he thinks there’s definitely a need for better EMS service, but still wasn’t sure about “the budget-side of it.”
Town chairman John Hanson said “the numbers” presented in the SMC proposal include a $1.25 million budget.
He said he thinks the only fair way the four towns could split the cost would be based on equalized property valuation.
In 2022, Hanson said the equalized value among the four towns was about $2.4 billion.
He said that number went up to $2.844 billion for this year.
“When Dana first saw these numbers, he had trouble believing it,” Hanson said. “So, in that respect, we are extremely fortunate that we have this kind of (tax) base for this kind of operation.”
All four towns are estimated to pay the same tax increase. Hanson said that increase would be $35 per $100,000 valuation.
“So if you have a $100,000 home, this is gonna cost you $35,” he said. “If you have a $500,000 home, it’s gonna cost you $175.”
The percentage share among the four towns, according to Hanson, includes Boulder Junction at 25.16 percent, Manitowish Waters at 30.8 percent, Presque Isle at 28.43 percent and Winchester at 15.62 percent.
“That’s not the important thing,” he said. “The important thing is that the levy for this would be the same for everybody throughout the whole district ... so you can’t really look at these numbers and say ‘Well we’re paying a larger share than the next town is paying’ because individually you are not, you’re paying the same rate regardless of where you live.”
Hanson said he thinks the four towns are in a good position in terms of having the necessary equipment to get started. All four towns have an ambulance, he said, and all four towns have fire departments that could be used in the interim.
Ultimately, though, he said he thinks the shared EMS district will need a building, or, possibly two, “for this thing to work properly.”
For example, Hanson said the towns would need to pay more money to construct the buildings, which would also need to be strategically based.
“So, if we were to have to spend a million dollars on a couple buildings, and we were to finance that over a ten-year period, the cost to each individual tax payer would be $5 a year,” he said. “So you’re looking at some numbers that probably 99 percent of the state of Wisconsin would look at and say ‘Boy, you guys are lucky,’ because we really are for that.”
Answering a question from the crowd as to how fast the EMS district would be implemented, Hanson said his hope is to start by Jan. 1, 2024, with full implementation by 2025.
Right now, he said, each town will need to get through its public hearings and if there isn’t any major oppositions, then each town board will need to take action to create the district. He said an initial budget would then need to be formed and staff would need to be hired.
“Each town board would then appropriate the money for the district,” Hanson said. “It’s a little different than a lot of other ... districts, like school districts or lake districts or other taxing districts. This district would not have taxing authority because of the laws in the state of Wisconsin.”
Towns appropriate the money first, he explained, and then that money is given to the EMS district for its expenses.
Staffing the department is expected be the biggest challenge, Mabie said to one member of the public who asked.
She explained how there would be a mixed staff of full-time and part-time paramedics and EMTs, as well as maintaining volunteers.
Two ambulances would be staffed full-time, while still designating the four ambulances owned by each township as backups.
“I’m not saying that’s exactly how we’re gonna do it,” she said. “I can’t put it in writing right now, but that’s the general idea of how we’re gonna do it.”
The hearing was heavily attended, and at one point, a member from the public raised his voice and rhetorically asked if there’s any reason not to form an EMS district among the four towns.
“That’s a good question,” Hanson said. “We did a survey in Manitowish Waters, I think three or four years ago, and at that time it was like two to one: ‘Let’s do this.’ And, the other point was (already) brought up, is that it is the town’s responsibility to provide this service. And if we can’t provide this service and somebody has a problem, we could be subject to some legal action. So it’s pretty critical.”
Trevor Greene may be reached via email at [email protected].