A survey of area school systems show a wide range of personal fire protection costs including a high of $19,866 for the Ladysmith School District that is nearly double the next highest school district.
It shows no protection costs charged directly to schools at Bruce, Flambeau, Bloomer and Cameron.
The survey was presented to the Ladysmith School Board at its January meeting.
It shows costs of $3,570 per year in Barron for nine buildings, $5,000 per year in Chetek for three buildings, $6,000 per year in Hayward for four buildings and $10,000 estimated per year in Spooner for three buildings.
It shows Ladysmith school district taxpayers pay the most of the nine school systems in the survey at $19,866 for fire protection at Ladysmith Middle & High School, Ladysmith Elementary School and the former elementary school on Lindoo Avenue.
Bills should be analyzed every year, interim School District Administrator Mike Cox told the board.
“Sometimes things pop out to you,” Cox said. “Fire protection is one that popped out to me because in most school districts I have worked for we have had no fire protection costs.”
The Lindoo Avenue building is now mostly unused since elementary classes were relocated to the Miner Avenue facility. It is now used to for club meetings and children’s recreation activity, and school officials say about $70,000 from the district’s Community Service Fund 80 is funding this use each year.
The city wants to partner with a private developer to convert the school into workforce housing in the classroom space and a community center in the gym, cafeteria and principal offices.
The school board wants to rid itself of the property and offered the building and land it is on to the city in exchange for $1 and about a 1-acre parcel of city-owned land at the U.S. 8 entrance at Ladysmith Middle & High School.
The “public fire protection” charge will vary community by community, according to Brock Geyen with the public accounting firm CliftonLarsonAllen that provides financial assistance to the city. Some have it as a direct charge to the general fund, which in turn is collected through taxes by everyone in the community, he said in an email to the city, responding to a request for more information about the city fire protection charges.
This is likely what is happening in school districts that show “no cost” for fire protection, according to Geyen.
He called the no cost “a bit misleading.”
Some only have it as part of the water rate structure and are collected on the water bills collected from only water customers but some also include undeveloped lots within city limits. A few have some sort of combination of the two with a certain percentage collected as a direct charge to the general fund with the balance collected through water bills.
“Your [personal fire protection] is collected fully on the water bills so your levy in turn is comparatively lower than any community that has a direct charge to the general fund,” Geyen said in the email to the city. “Your method is somewhat unique in that you base your allocation of billing on improved valuation. Most use an equivalent meter method but either method is appropriate based on the [Public Service Commission] guidance.”
Ladysmith utility bills sent quarterly to homes, businesses and churches include fees for water, sewer, garbage and fire protection. In addition to the trash charge, the city also requires garbage bag stickers to help fund curbside collection.
Cox said upon reviewing the bills, he surveyed other area schools to find what they paid to their local fire departments for fire protection.
“We are kind of unique here as far as our costs are concerned,” Cox said. “I had an inquiry in to the city [of Ladysmith] and I was told the cost is based on the value of the building.”
“So, if our building is worth $7 million or whatever it is that is the basis for the fire protection,” Cox said.
Barron’s cost is based on size of water main to each of their nine facilities, according to Cox.
“I think this is important information for the board to have. I don’t know if anybody has ever pointed this out for you,” Cox said.
The Ladysmith school costs for fire protection were taken from the building utility bills, according to Cox. “On top of that we have the normal charges for water, sewer and waste,” he said.
“This is just one that seemed to stick out to me especially when you see there are districts where there are no charges,” Cox said.
Flambeau School is served by the Ladysmith Fire Department, but it does not receive a city utility bill with a fire protection charge. Instead, surrounding municipalities contract with Ladysmith Fire Department for fire protection so Flambeau School fire protection costs are likely part of the fire dues paid by the town of Grow, where Flambeau School is located.
Cox asked the board to look at the charge.
“It is interesting that ours is as high as it is compared with the other districts,” School Board President Todd Novakofski said.
“It is kind of an eye opener,” Cox said.
Ladysmith utility billing had been handled by the city comptroller, which is a position recently eliminated by city council as part of a job duty reconfiguration that included creation of a new deputy clerk/treasurer.
Fire protection charges are likely based on property values just like real estate taxes, according to City Administrator Al Christianson.
“The data to determine [fire protection charges] is in the tax roll,” Christianson said in an email. “Publicly owned property like schools are, of course, tax exempt making it necessary to obtain alternate information to establish value for them.”
It is possible that years ago the school district was asked to submit a property appraisal or property insurance information to the city to establish value to be protected, according to Christianson.
Property owners may contest their taxable property value perhaps starting with getting an appraisal done. A property value change could change fire protection charges.
“The school district might be advised to do likewise,” Christianson said.