Harper Woods proposes combined police, fire departments

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Harper Woods — City officials are asking voters Tuesday to approve a measure allowing Harper Woods to join the growing number of Metro communities that combine their police and fire departments.

The City Council on Oct. 5 unanimously approved a public safety implementation plan, which officials say will save the cash-strapped community millions of dollars, allow more police to patrol, and keep the city from having to hire an emergency financial manager.

The city’s firefighters union opposes the plan.

After a similar proposal was rejected by voters in 2011, the Harper Woods Professional Fire Fighters Local No. 1188 agreed to allow some police to fight fires. Local President Nathan Butler said the city is reneging on that agreement.

“We gave them an inch, and now they want to take a mile,” he said. “At the time when we agreed to this, everyone was ecstatic because we were allowing the police onto the fire ground, even though the residents said they wanted to keep police and fire separate.”

Under public safety departments, usually implemented in smaller communities such as the 21/2-square-mile Harper Woods, police officers are cross-trained to fight fires. Metro Detroit communities that have switched to public safety departments include all five of the Grosse Pointes, Canton Township, Farmington, Berkley, Huntington Woods, and Oak Park.

Approval would allow Harper Woods, which is operating under a hybrid Public Safety Department, to achieve full implementation. Of the city’s 25 police officers, 20 have been cross-trained to fight fires. There also are seven full-time firefighters.

Since the combination in 2011, the city has saved about $1.5 million, officials said.

If the measure is approved, none of the firefighters would lose their jobs. However, when they leave the department, they would be replaced by cross-trained police officers.

The measure also would end 24-hour shifts for firefighters; instead, they would work 12-hour shifts, and would perform clerical duties for the police department during down times, which officials say would allow more officers to patrol.

“The city has been significantly financially strapped, and we simply can’t afford both a fire department and a police department,” City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk said. “We can’t keep paying people to be in the firehouse 24 hours, to eat and sleep, and just sit there waiting for a fire to happen when our volume is so low.”

Skotarczyk said Harper Woods has less than 10 major structure fires per year, in addition to about 150 smaller fires.

Butler insisted figures released by the city are inaccurate. He said the city has about 250 fires each year, and challenged the contention firefighters have a lot of down time.

“There’s constant training, checking equipment — it’s ridiculous to say we’re sitting around doing nothing,” he said.

“The only reason we’ve seen savings is through the loss of personnel because of retirement or other reasons. If anything, it’s cost more because of raises they gave to police, and the cost of training them.”

City Councilman Charles Flanagan said Butler was “spewing outright lies and propaganda.”

“The union just wants to preserve those jobs where they work only 10 percent of the time, and the rest of the time they’re sitting around the firehouse washing the fire trucks, or doing nothing,” he said.

Flanagan also said if the ballot measure isn’t approved, the city eventually will be forced to hire an emergency manager. “We’ve already gotten rid of building inspectors, cut DPW next to nothing; and cut the parks and rec way down, just to maintain what little bit of City Hall we have.

“The only reason we exist is PA 33 allows cities of less than 15,000 to place an assessment to pay the bills. We’d be bankrupt without that,” he said. “This year, every household had 15 mills assessed on their houses; last year it was 12, and next year, it’ll be 16.5 mills. Without the $4 million that brings in, we’d cease to exist. We couldn’t afford to keep the lights on. That’s how dire this is.”

The city has contracted the private ambulance service MedStar for two years, which would continue regardless of how voters decide, Skotarczyk said.

Mary Kingston, a Harper Woods resident since 1984, said she plans to vote to approve the measure.

“I can’t see any negatives, and lots of positives,” said Kingston, 62. “None of the firefighters will lose their jobs, and it’ll get more eyes and ears on the street.

“We have a nice city, and I’d like to keep it that way. Without this, I’m afraid there won’t be enough money to keep Harper Woods the way people like it.”


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