A proposal to allow the Holmen Area Fire and the La Crosse Fire departments to discuss ways to develop greater cooperation received cautionary support from village representatives on the Holmen Area Fire District Association Board.

At fire board’s Dec. 20 meeting, HAFD Fire Chief Paul Menches asked the board to allow him to discuss a fire district concept with the department in La Crosse. He advised the fire board he has been talking with La Crosse Fire Chief Ken Gilliam about what the two departments could do together.

Although Steve Johnston, Holmen Village Board trustee and member of the HAFDAB, moved to okay Menches’ request for the discussion between the two departments, he advised the chief he was wary about creating a regionalized service.

“Be careful of regionalization,” said Johnston. “We have to meet the needs of our communities first. You might not necessarily be able to control costs down the road. Sharing costs with La Crosse could backfire.”

In addition to the village of Holmen, HAFD serves the towns of Holland and Onalaska. Two representatives from each municipality sit on the fire board. Although the fire department serves the public, it’s a private entity providing emergency medical service and fire protection and suppression to the three municipalities.

Past regionalization efforts with the city of La Crosse considered by Holmen have run into snags. One project was a plan to send the village’s wastewater to the treatment plant in La Crosse.

In December 2015, the village received notice La Crosse would charge a hookup fee of $2.2 million. The fee wasn’t part of the discussion during the three-year planning period.

When the village board learned of the added charge, it voted against the plan, electing instead to upgrade its own sewage facility instead.

Johnston favored greater cooperation with the La Crosse Fire Department in such areas as a response vehicle maintenance. Gilliam told the fire board members his department has a full-time maintenance person on staff.

“I would like to improve our maintenance program,” said Menches. “It’s getting more difficult finding people with the qualifications to work on the vehicles. I want the green light to talk about maintenance with Chief Gilliam.”

The fire engines and response vehicles must meet Department of Transportation standards. The Holmen Fire Department had attempted to maintain the fleet in-house, but department personnel weren’t equipped to maintain the vehicles to DOT standards and the fire station wasn’t designed for mechanical work.

HAFD Assistant Chief Bill Bulawa told the fire board the department has had to sent vehicles out for maintenance to ensure they meet testing requirements.

In addition to indicating he would be willing to discuss an agreement to maintain HAFD vehicles, Gilliam informed the fire board his department would be willing to share vehicles.

“If one of your engines is down, I have the ability to slide one in place for you,” said Gilliam.

The fire board approved Menches’ request to discuss an agreement with the LCFD for vehicle servicing.

The fire board was informed the department’s pumper, ladder truck, hoses and breathing apparatus passed recent inspection. However, the board was advised, the department’s 22-year-old ladder truck is nearing its useable life and replacing it could cost more than $850,000.

2017 budget report

Menches reported the 2017 budget is ending the year with a surplus.

“We’ll use the remaining funds to make the Jan. 5 payroll,” said Menches. “It includes making last quarter payment for part-time employees.”

While the budget is going into 2018 in the black, one of the categories experiencing overruns is in office operations.

“This is the difficult part of this job because we’re not part of a public entity, we have to pay for these services ourselves,” said Menches.

To reduce costs in operations, Menches advised the fire board he was able to negotiate a reduced rate for accounting services the department uses.

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Pat McKnight is a freelance reporter covering Holmen village government and events on behalf of the Onalaska Holmen Courier-Life. Call 608-791-8218 to be put in touch with her.

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