Ypsilanti Township firefighters offered buyouts, see minimum staff reduced
The Ypsilanti Township Fire Department will soon reduce the number of firefighters on duty at any given time.
The township board voted 5-2 Wednesday to approve a proposal brought to the table by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1830 calling for buyouts and reducing the minimum staffing level from eight to six firefighters.
Fire Chief Eric Copeland told the board he was aiming to trim $1 million from the department’s budget by next year to solve its financial problems. While pointing to the firefighters in the audience, he said the roughly $576,000 in savings from the buyouts was the route all sides preferred to realize savings.
“This is not (the) chief putting forth his agenda - this is a collaboration between all the stakeholders represented here,” Copeland said.
The township’s fire department saw a $662,000 decrease in its operational budget in 2010, while appropriations rose from $515,000 to $865,000. At current spending levels, Copeland said the township’s fire fund will be depleted by 2012.
The township is hoping to shed eight firefighters from its staff of 34, including six immediate retirements. Copeland said the 2012 projected revenues would support a department of roughly 25 firefighters.
The buyout offers firefighters with 23 years of experience the option to receive their full pension, which they otherwise would have been entitled to after 25 years of experience. Notice must be provided by July 1, 2010.
Copeland pointed out that while the minimum number of staff on duty is set at six, he estimates the number will often be higher. He said the figure came from research done for the department’s insurers that required him to look at records of how many employees were on duty each day of the previous year.
Finding a total of $1 million to cut will require the township and union to head back to the table for further negotiations, which could possibly lead to layoffs.
Trustee Mike Martin expressed concerns over savings from future collective bargaining, then called union president Larry James to the microphone to ask if he understood layoffs were still a possibility, despite the buyouts.
“Are you committed to negotiating with the township to meet that goal,” Martin asked.
“Yes we’ll negotiate, and it’ll be spirited,” he replied.
Trustee Stan Eldridge and Martin said other ways to solve the budget problems haven't been adequately discussed. Eldridge said he doesn't believe the township should be using taxpayer money for buyouts.
“We just simply have a difference of opinion on how to arrive at the same goal,” he said.
Among the alternatives suggested at the meeting was drawing from the general fund to cover the fire fund temporarily.
Township Clerk Karen Lovejoy-Roe said the township’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees members recently “took a big hit” in seeing their work week reduced to 32-hours. She said it would be unfair to pull money out of the general fund for one department and not another.
Lovejoy-Roe added it was unclear how long the township would be drawing from its general fund before it would begin to see growth in fire revenues.
“Temporarily to when?” she asked. “We don’t know when that’s going to happen.”
Township Supervisor Brenda Stumbo concurred.
“We have always given directives to tell people to live within the millages,” she said. “Millage money is separate, and we don’t give general fund money to other people.”
Eldridge said he was shot down when he proposed asking voters for more money in the form of a millage.
“Why not let the residents decide to how to improve the service?” he asked.
Copeland said a millage would have been his first option months ago, but he's seen a level of collaboration in the township that gives him confidence savings can be accomplished without one.
“As a last alternative, I want to seek a millage increase to put on the backs of the residents,” Copeland said.
Township Treasurer Larry Doe suggested approving the plan as it was presented, then going to the voters with a millage if the township doesn't reach its target savings. He said if buyouts and other measures are implemented, the township would only have to ask voters to approve roughly .2 mills.
“It may be something palatable for the residents to pass,” he said. “I sure would think more highly of the board if we were able to keep the millage rate down as we have promised the residents.”
Intertwined in the discussion was the issue of firefighter and resident safety at the minimum staffing levels. When Eldridge asked Copeland point blank if the staffing levels were adequate, Copeland said the department would be understaffed with six firefighters manning three stations.
“I’m very reluctant to put you in a position where you’re short-staffed and violate MIOSHA law,” Martin said. “I wonder how much money that is worth.”
But Copeland noted that department has mutual aid programs allowing it to safely fight fires. He also responded to questions about the department possibly violating the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s “two in, two out” rule, which requires two firefighters outside a burning structure while two are inside within six to eight minutes.
Copeland and several firefighters said there are exceptions to the MIOSHA rule allowing firefighters to enter in the case of a confirmed rescue. Copeland said the rule isn't violated nearly as much as the trustees implied.
Stumbo said she had confidence in Copeland’s approach.
“If this fire chief is coming in and saying he can do it safely, then I’m going to take him at his word,” she said.
Tom Perkins is a freelance writer for AnnArbor.com. Reach the news desk at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-623-2530.