Ann Arbor firefighters union claims station closures possible after failed deal
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Ann Arbor officials and firefighters union representatives say they're at an impasse in negotiations - less than a week after it appeared the two sides had reached a tentative agreement to save the city a significant sum of money.
According to sources close to the discussions, the union offered to make major concessions, including a 6 percent reduction in wages and benefits. But with no guarantee of avoiding layoffs and other differences unresolved, talks have stalled.
Matt Schroeder, president of the firefighters union, said he's not at liberty to say what has been discussed, but it's unfortunate the city is moving forward with eliminating 14 firefighter positions from the payroll effective Jan. 4.
"We made a good faith gesture to the city and offered them a substantial cost savings to get them through the July period and thought, in the meantime, we could work hard to try to overcome some of our differences," Schroeder said. "The city was unwilling to budge on those issues and keep us on a level playing field, so it appears as though they're going to proceed with layoffs and station closures. My understanding is that Stations 3 and 4 will be closing."
City Administrator Roger Fraser declined to speculate on which, if any, stations could close under plans under way to reorganize the fire department with fewer firefighters. He also declined to comment on specifics of the negotiations.
"We don't talk away from the table," Fraser said. "We've had discussions and there's been some promising portions of that discussion, but at the moment, apparently they're not happy with where we are."
Ann Arbor currently has five fire stations after closing Station 2 about seven years ago. Station 3 is located at 2130 Jackson Ave. and Station 4 is at 2415 Huron Parkway.
The other three stations are downtown, near the University of Michigan's North Campus, and near Briarwood Mall.
Angela J. Cesere | AnnArbor.com
Police Chief Barnett Jones, the city's safety services administrator, declined to speculate on the possibility of stations closing other than to say the fire department's acting chief, Greg Hollingsworth, is working on different scenarios.
"The acting chief has been working on a couple of proposals to restructure if we do have the layoffs," Jones said. "One of those proposals does indicate we would have to close a station and another one is to do it without closing a station."
Jones criticized the union for trying to "start a firestorm of speculation."
"I believe that they're at the table and the negotiations should be taking place at the table," he said. "It is not the time to play games in the press - it's time to sit down and knuckle down and see what we can do to avoid layoffs."
Schroeder sent an e-mail to City Council members on Thursday, expressing disappointment that the city is going through with cuts and urging them to ask tough questions of the city's administration. He said there has been no impact study done and the union has been kept in the dark about plans to reorganize.
Union representatives have reached out to the University of Michigan's Board of Regents to tell of their plight, but say they have not heard back. They fear the cuts the city is proposing could impact the ability to respond to calls on U-M's campus.
That has resurrected a longstanding debate over whether the university - which occupies a significant chunk of land in Ann Arbor but pays no city taxes - should contribute to the cost of providing city services such as fire protection.
"We've been making a case out of that ever since I've been here and before that," said Fraser, who was hired as Ann Arbor's city administrator in April 2002.
Fraser said the state's Fire Protection Fund is supposed to allocate money to help municipalities like Ann Arbor pay for fire services using a formula based on the percentage of tax-exempt property in the city. Ann Arbor, like many communities that are home to public institutions, has not received the amount the formula calls for.
According to Fraser's calculation, the city should be receiving between $1.8 million and $2 million a year. But he says it hardly has reached half that amount and has been as low as $300,000.
According to Fraser, the university's position has been that its mission is education and the city doesn't ask public schools to pay for city services, so it shouldn't ask the university, either.
Jim Kosteva, U-M's director of community relations, said the university has heard from the firefighters union and is sympathetic. But he said a special request for funding would have to come directly from the city's administration and there have been no such discussions in the last year.
In the past, Kosteva said, the university has responded to special requests from the city. He cited a gift of $400,000 the university made several years ago to purchase a new fire truck. He also noted that the university - for decades now - has provided the city fire station near U-M's North Campus rent-free and utility-free.
"Sufficient and adequate fire protection is just as much an interest for us at it is for every citizen and business operator in the community," Kosteva said. "If there was a point in time reached within their budgetary constraints that there was some measure of jeopardy regarding the ability to provide some of those basic municipal services ... we would rely upon the city's administration to communicate that not only to the university but to the citizens at large."
City officials say they expect to realize some operating efficiencies and potential cost savings in the months ahead now that fire dispatch operations have been moved to Huron Valley Ambulance. The intent is to better screen calls through HVA and reduce unnecessary runs by city's fire trucks.
Ann Arbor's fire department handled 5,981 dispatched calls last year, 250 of which were fire-related. The bulk of the rest were emergency medical calls - not all of which needed to be responded to by the city's fire department, city officials said.
Craig Ferris, a lieutenant who has been with the department for 16 years, recently authored a report that discusses the role of the fire department in Ann Arbor. Ferris said he feels city leaders have tried to trivialize what the department does.
"It's a repeat of 2002. It's the playbook they followed back then," he said. "It's go on the offensive, attack the fire department, discount what we do, tell everybody everything is going to be OK and there'll be a minimal, unnoticeable reduction in service. But in reality - like you heard Mr. Fraser say - he's OK if we're just a 'defensive' fire department. And people to need realize what that term means.
"That means we're not going to come inside your house and put out your fire," Ferris said. "We're going to stand around the outside and make sure your fire doesn't extend to your neighbor's house. And I don't think people in the city of Ann Arbor are willing to put up with that."
Schroeder said he wants city officials and the firefighters union to resolve their differences and bargain in good faith.
"The city appears not to be willing to do that," he said. "They want us to give a lot and they're unwilling to come through with no-layoff guarantees for us, which is obviously what we're after because we believe that the way we're currently staffed it's important for us to maintain that minimal amount."
The fire department currently operates on a budget of about $14 million a year, the bulk of which goes to wages and benefits. Right now the department has 94 full-time employees (soon to be 80), which includes two management assistants and the chief. In 2001-02, the department had 113.5 full-time equivalent employees.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2529.