Suburbs may merge fire costs
Voters in two communities in neighboring counties are being asked to approve a unique fire department collaboration that may be their last best chance to avoid layoffs and remain solvent.
The proposal, with a 14-mill tax, is on the ballot in Eastpointe and Hazel Park on Tuesday. The two communities are among eight cities and school districts in Metro Detroit holding elections.
Unlike communities such as Melvindale and Dearborn, which merged fire departments in 2013, neither Eastpointe’s nor Hazel Park’s firefighters would serve the other.
“This does not mean that fire trucks will be racing across the city of Warren and Center Line from Hazel Park to Eastpointe or Eastpointe to Hazel Park,” said Hazel Park City Manager Edward Klobucher.
Passage in Eastpointe and Hazel Park would set in motion the formation of the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority, a public financing organization between the two communities, that would cover the cost of fire and rescue services in the two aging suburbs.
Additionally, city managers in both cities say if the authority is approved, it will free up revenue needed for other services, such as police and public works.
Two non-contiguous communities in different counties — Eastpointe in Macomb and Hazel Park in Oakland — entering into such a collaborative may be a first, said Bill Anderson, spokesman for the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments, in a phone interview.
If approved, the millage would be for 20 years starting July 1. A three-person authority — one representative from each city and one at-large — would oversee the authority and the funding.
Voters don’t need to OK the authority in both cities for it to go into effect. Macomb County’s chief election clerk, Roger Cardamone, said the proposal will pass if there are more combined “yes” votes, even if the question fails in one community or the other.
“Think of it as the authority, as opposed to two communities,” Cardamone said. “It could pass overwhelmingly in one community and fail in the other, as long as there is more ‘yes’ votes authoritywide.”
For Eastpointe, with a population of more than 30,000, it’s estimated the millage would generate more than $5.8 million for its emergency services in the first year, city officials said. The average homeowner would pay about $345 a year.
In Hazel Park, with a population of 16,000, the estimated amount raised would be more than $2.3 million and it would cost the average homeowner about $139 a year, officials said.
While 10 miles apart, Eastpointe and Hazel Park have similar financial struggles. Both are landlocked and fully developed inner-ring suburbs that suffered a substantial decline in taxable property values as a result of the foreclosure crisis that began in 2008.
“Our taxable value in Hazel Park is less than half of what it was in 2008-09,” said Klobucher. “So we are all struggling to provide those critical services to our residents.”
Since 2008, Eastpointe has seen a 51 percent drop in property values that has resulted in a huge budget gap, Eastpointe City Manager Steve Duchane said in a phone interview.
Eastpointe’s low property tax, an average of $1,491 annually, isn’t adequate to support public services.
In August, Eastpointe residents approved a charter amendment renewing and making permanent a 7-mill levy for public safety operations that voters passed in 2009. The millage generates $3 million annually but it costs more than $13 million to maintain police and fire services.
That millage will stay in place, Duchane said.
Police and fire services in Hazel Park are funded by a five-year 9.8-mill special assessment voters approved in 2011, which was to generate $2.1 million. But, due to declining property values, the amount collected from the millage has been just $1.2 million. The budget of police services is more than $4 million while the fire department budget is more than $2 million.
If voters approve the authority and the 14-mill proposal, Hazel Park will reduce the special assessment from 9.8 mills to 2.8. Residents will see a net increase of 7 mills to fund emergency services, Klobucher said.
Harvey Creech, a 50-year resident of Eastpointe, realizes both cites are in dire need of money and emergency services are vital, but he doesn’t agree with the 14-mill tax levy.
“I could understand an incremental increase,” Creech said. “I want to save the city but 14 mills is exorbitant.”
He fears an increase could be a burden to seniors and others on tight, fixed incomes. He also is uncomfortable with the majority vote.
Both city managers balk at any suggestion that the cities can do more to cut costs.
“We share services all of the time, from trash collection, special police units, we have an automatic mutual aid agreement with our fire department and Ferndale and Madison Heights, but that will only stay in place if we have a full-time fire department,” Klobucher said. “If I lose my fire department, I lose mutual aid with other communities because I won’t be able to meet my obligations to it.”
Like most municipalities over the past several years, Eastpointe and Hazel Park say they have cut staff and pay and implemented a four-day workweek at city offices to save money. “We have trimmed to the point where there is no trimming left,” Duchane said.
Anderson said the benefits of the collaboration include potential sharing of some administrative costs, which in turn means savings for residents of both communities.
Shrinking annual budgets for emergency services has meant dangerous staffing reductions, said Nick Sage of the Eastpointe Fire Department.
“We had two firefighters get hurt while fighting a structure fire,” Sage wrote. “When firefighters have to work even harder due to the depleted staffing, accidents seem to happen more often. This is why (the authority) is so important. The funding can stabilize our workforce and likely provide a means to increase staffing.”
If the authority is approved, the money used for emergency services could go toward other city services, Klobucher said.
“Freeing up those funds may allow us to become a little bit more competitive with the surrounding departments and be able to maintain some of the officers we have, instead of them looking for different jobs,” Hazel Park Police Chief Martin Barner said in a phone interview.
“Nobody wants to pay more taxes and I am in that boat as well,” Eastpointe Police Deputy Chief Eric Keiser said. “But since we all live in a community or in our society, we have to pay taxes to keep it going so we have the services that we are accustomed to.”
Like the fire department the police department has seen drastic staff reductions. Keiser said in 1995, there were 57 police officers. Today, there are 24 full-time officers.
Klobucher and Duchane fear that if the millage proposal is defeated, emergency managers may be in the future of both communities.
In 2008, Eastpointe had a fund balance of $13 million, Duchane said. To date, it is $6.5 million. In 2016, that balance will be zero, he predicted. Hazel Park’s 2014-15 budget is just over $13 million. This year, Klobucher said, “we will run a deficit” of nearly $800,000 deficit.”
Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Tuesday in several communities:
■Plymouth: Public safety millage, 11/2 mills for five years for Public Safety Department.
■Plymouth Township: Two millage proposals for police and fire public safety. One, a 0.56-mill renewal, the other a 2-mill (rolled back under Headlee Amendment to 1.6 mills) renewal, both through 2035.
■Dearborn Heights: Public School System No. 7 technology improvements bond of nearly $4.6 million.
■Hamtramck Public Schools: Operating millage renewal of 18.18 mills through 2025.
■Wyandotte Public Schools: Bonding proposal seeking about $39.3 million for building, remodeling, equipping and furnishing schools; technology upgrades and improving athletic fields.
■Hazel Park: South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority fire and police proposal
■Eastpointe: South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority fire and police proposal, city council partial terms
■Ray Township: Two millage renewals for Fire and Rescue Department. One, is a 1-mill increase to replace emergency vehicles at the fire department, the other a 1.5-mill increase for department operations. Both are through 2020.
Source: County clerks
By the numbers
Eastpointe Fire Department
$4.1 million budget
18 firefighter/paramedics, one deputy chief/fire marshal, 3 shifts of 6 firefighter/paramedics
2 Paramedic Engines that are also used for fire suppression
1 aerial ladder truck for rescue and roof ventilation operations
Hazel Park Fire Department
$2.3 million budget
20 firefighter/paramedics, one chief and fire marshal, 3 shifts of 6 firefighters/paramedics
1 ladder truck
Hazel Park Police Department
$4.2 million budget
33 full time officers
20 patrol cars
Eastpointe Police Department
$7.9 million budget
24 full time police
11 marked patrol cars