Like most small town police departments, Clintonville is dealing with tough budgets.
For the last few years, Sgt. Gene Meyer has been searching for grants to help keep the department running.
"We need equipment. We need personnel," Meyer said. "We could use money for just about anything here."
Then he stumbled onto something: A charge on his cell phone billed called the Police and Fire Protection Fee. So the 24-year veteran went to work, trying to find out more about the fee and how his department could benefit from it. But the investigator ran into roadblocks. He made phone calls and sent emails to elected officials and state agencies but got nowhere.
"It's frustrating trying to get answers and not getting any," he said. Meyer contacted FOX 11 On Special Assignment. We found that the Police and Fire Protection Fee does help fund police and fire services, but not as directly as you might think.
The fee was created in the 2009 state budget. It requires residents to pay a 75-cent fee every month for home phones and cell phones.
In 2010, the fee brought in $46,233,400. In 2011, it brought in even more: $61,033,400.
The money goes into the general fund, which is basically the big pot of money used to pay for government services. From that pot of money, the state sends money back to local governments to pay for things like police and fire protection, roads and parks.
Kristin Ruesch is with the Public Service Commission, the agency that administers the fee. She says the PSC has received several complaints from residents about the charge.
"We've certainly heard from people who want to see the fee taken off of their phone bill and collected the way it used to be through general fund taxes," Ruesch said.
Two Rivers City Manager Greg Buckley has also had residents complain about the fee.
"There's been a lot of confusion about that," he said. "People assume that's something extra the city's are getting to pay for police and fire protection when it fact, it was a shell game."
Here's how it worked: The state created the new fee to supposedly protect police and fire services from cuts. But instead of adding the new money to the shared revenue program, it simply replaced some of the other tax money used to pay for local services. Then, the state cut the entire shared revenue program by 3.5%.
"All it really was was a substitution," Buckley said. "We're not getting more money as the result of that fee that appears on the bottom of your phone bill."
Who's to blame for the Police and Fire Protection Fee being on your phone bill? That depends on your politics. The fee was imposed under a Democratic governor and a Democratically-controlled Legislature. But that was in 2009. Under the latest state budget, which was put together by a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled Legislature, the Police and Fire Protection Fee remained intact.
State Senator Dave Hansen (D-Green Bay) served on the Joint Finance Committee in 2009. He says the Police and Fire Protection Fee was designed to be a temporary fix.
"We put a sunset. It was supposed to go away," he said.
That sunset provision was vetoed by then-governor Jim Doyle (D).
When asked why it made sense to put the fee on phone bills Hansen replied, "Well, you have to find a pot of money in tough situations. Obviously, the governor's complained about having a really tough budget in the last budget but Gov. Doyle had a really tough budget, too. You just don't want your police and fire protection to go away."
"Sometimes you have to find pots of money to make sure that certain things are protected and I think that we did put that in on a temporary basis did help," Hansen added.
It was also a fee people might not notice. That's because in 2009, a similar fee that was used to pay for upgrades to 911 services was set to end. That fee only applied to cell phones. The new fee was expanded and the money used to help balance the budget.
Todd Berry is with the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
"They have found a lot of ways to help, at least on paper, balance the budget without general fund tax increases," Berry said.
He says despite the fee, state aid to local governments is at the same level it was 20 years ago. Berry doesn't expect the Police and Fire Protection Fee to go away anytime soon.
"Generally speaking, when things go into law, regardless of the Legislature, it tends to stick around, particularly if it generates more revenue," Berry said.
Gene Meyer is happy to finally have some answers, but he'd like the see the money go directly to his department rather than get funneled through Madison.
"It's my firm belief that it should go to police and fire departments," Meyer said. "If that's the reason that you're going to collect it and that's what people believe it's going to be spent on, I think that's where it should be going."
There is a possibility the fee could be changed. A special committee in Madison is currently reviewing the state's 911 system and looking at potential funding sources.
Local officials, like
Greg Buckley in Two Rivers, fear any changes to the fee could end up in another cut to shared revenue, which would mean even less money for police and fire protection.
Firefighters are battling a house fire in Kewaunee County.
Wind, snow, cold and ice played a role as firefighters battled a fire in downtown Ripon Wednesday morning.
Outagamie County's second largest employer is expanding, and veterans are encouraged to apply.
The State Building Commission has approved $5 million to help build the Wisconsin Maritime Center of Excellence in Marinette.
Fond du Lac police have released more information about the weapons they found in the apartment of a man who was at the center of a five-hour standoff on Monday.
The Wisconsin Department of Transportation is announcing a public meeting has been scheduled to provide road closure and design information for the Velp Avenue interchange area.