Oshkosh Fire Department photo
In a national trend, public safety services are being used to subsidize private businesses, the city fire chief said.
By Miles Maguire
When elderly residents fall in a care facility somewhere in the city, there a good’s chance that the person who comes to help them get back up is a member of the Oshkosh Fire Department. The calls come frequently, they are expensive and they are part of a national trend in which private businesses are turning to taxpayers to cover their costs.
This is just one of a wide range of local issues that were brought to the attention of state legislators at a town hall meeting Feb. 25. City staff and members of the Common Council tried to explain to Democrat Rep. Gordon Hintz and Republican Sen. Dan Feyen how state-level policy and budget decisions can help, or hurt, the Oshkosh community. Republican Rep. Mike Schraa said he was unable to attend because of illness.
Other issues on the agenda included the unintended consequences of a recent tax law change, a request for support of a library digitization project, the “dark store” property tax controversy, the proposed short-term rental ordinance, bridge maintenance responsibilities and the possibility of replacing the current special assessment system with a transportation utility fee.
The discussion, which lasted roughly two hours, demonstrated how much of the city’s decision-making is driven by state-level policies. Both Hintz and Feyen expressed a willingness to help but could offer no firm commitments. They also expressed surprise at learning that a supposedly neutral change to personal property tax rules ended up cutting into city revenues.
“You’re supposed to be made whole,” Feyen said. “That was the whole concern,” added Hintz.
A bigger revenue issue for cities around the state has to do with chain stores reducing their assessments in a way that shifts the tax burden to homeowners and independent businesses. There have been strongly bipartisan efforts to address this so-called “dark store” issue in the legislature, and Democratic Gov. Tony Evers promised to propose relief in his new budget. But Hintz offered little hope that the law will change.
“It didn’t go anywhere last time sort of because of the gatekeepers, and I don’t think it will go anywhere this time because of the gatekeepers,” Hintz said. “As long as Robin Vos is speaker, it’ll just never pass.”
Vos, a Republican who represents a part of Racine County, is speaker of the General Assembly and has opposed a change in the law on the grounds that it would be a tax increase for those businesses that have been successful in cutting their assessments.
For several weeks the Common Council has been wrestling with the issue of short-term housing rentals for events like the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual AirVenture. One of the biggest causes for concern was a perception that the city was imposing a 10-night trigger for the new ordinance to take effect, but that number actually comes out of state law.
The council voted Feb. 26 to approve a larger number of allowable nights, 16. But, as Council Member Matt Mugeraurer pointed out, this shift will cause confusion because it will conflict with state law. Finding a way to resolve this inconsistency was another topic that was raised with Hintz and Feyen.
City officials also expressed concern about possible future state actions that would either cost the city monetarily, such as making local communities pick up the cost of bridge maintenance, or undo proposed policy changes, such as the plan to replace the current system for street-related special assessments.
On the issue of the fire department having to provide “lift assists” at private, licensed care facilities, Chief Mike Stanley explained that this is an expensive service for which there is no reimbursement from Medicare unless a resident is taken to the hospital.
The department responds to a total of 1,500 to 1,700 falls a year, Stanley said, a number that includes private residences as well as nursing homes.
Feyen initially suggested that the problem was a liability matter and that state law should be amended to remove this burden from nursing home operators.
But Stanley explained that the issue comes down to money. Nursing home operators have figured out that “they can save money by having less providers and less skilled providers” on duty.
“It’s an issue across the country that they’re using public safety services to subsidize their lack of staff,” Stanley said. “Other states have gone to looking at enacting legislation,” he said, “so we aren’t carrying that burden, subsidizing their staff.”