Ypsilanti declines to explore fire collaboration with Ypsilanti Township
Would a collaboration between the City of Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township’s fire departments make sense?
Informal talks took place over recent weeks toward that goal, officials confirmed, but they've stopped.
Ypsilanti's city manager says the city isn't interested in exploring the concept - which may come with a potential savings of more than $500,000 - and added that it won't be brought up before City Council.
After the Ypsilanti Township Board of Trustees unanimously approved a motion to explore ways to collaborate and save money with the city at its Oct. 22 meeting, Fire Chief Eric Copeland was directed to explore how the two departments could work together.
“I saw it as a win-win for both communities,” he said
The city has a strained budget and the township, which nearly encircles the city, would benefit from more manpower and the use of Ypsilanti’s ladder truck and other equipment.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
The discussions among politicians and union members occurred informally over the last month, and Copeland said he met with Ypsilanti City Manager Ralph Lange to propose an arrangement similar to an authority in which the township would absorb the city’s department. The city would then contract for fire services from the township.
Lange told AnnArbor.com he wasn’t interested because he is pursuing the creation of a hybrid model for the police and fire department. The hybrid model would have separate police and fire departments with an "adequate" number of firefighters to respond to daily service demands.
This would be coupled with a larger police department that would have a certain number of cross-trained officers that have been trained and equipped to respond to major fire incidents whenever the fire department is busy or on another run. However, no official plan or cost-savings estimate has been offered yet.
Lange said he thought estimating $500,000 in savings from a partnership between the township and city was premature because the city is still negotiating with its fire union and labor costs are unknown.
Lange said he didn't discuss the proposal with council and that the city is more interested in retaining control of core services like police and fire. But Lange said partnering with Ypsilanti Township would be a consideration if the hybrid model doesn't pan out.
Copeland said he and Lange agreed to work in other areas where there is possibility for collaboration, such as code enforcement.
The estimated $500,000 is a township figure from a draft of the plan, Copeland said. He said those savings would be found in reducing the operational costs, reducing staffing, reducing administrative costs, reducing overtime and reducing legacy costs.
Copeland said the township would have benefited because the City of Ypsilanti has a ladder truck and is strategically located. It would have also improved service for residents in both municipalities because nine firefighters would show up right away on each call instead of after the second or third alarm.
City firefighters would have largely remained working at the city station, though they would have covered calls in the township, as township firefighters would immediately respond to calls in the city.
The township responds to an average of 11 calls per day while the city responds to six, Copeland said. The township has a department of 27 firefighters and a budget of about $5 million. Ypsilanti has a department of 16.
In addition to the meeting between Lange and Copeland, Ypsilanti Township Trustee Stan Eldridge and Ypsilanti City Council Member Brian Robb met with union leaders from both departments and a regional union leader from the Wayne-Westland Fire Department to discuss the idea.
Eldridge said it received a positive response from those at the meeting, and he said he left expecting that there would at least be a series of conversations to explore the idea further. He said he was surprised Lange wasn’t interested.
“I think everyone was willing to look at collaborating on services, but the city manager apparently made the decision he doesn’t want to do that,” Eldridge said. He added that the township would be happy to further discuss the concept.
Ken Hobbs, the City of Ypsilanti’s fire union leader, said he is receptive to the idea and favors it over merging the city’s fire and police departments. He said it makes more sense to work with the township now the city doesn’t have a chief or fire marshal, and he said it would help the city maintain the same level of service.
A merger into a public safety department would be costly in the long run and reduce fire protection, Hobbs contended.
“An alternative to a public safety department that would provide a better service and save money in the long run; the better option would be to work with the township,” Hobbs said.
The City of Wayne and City of Westland recently merged their two fire departments. Hobbs said they did so through small steps. He said it was a several year process that started with sharing a chief, then dealing with contracts and eventually combining each operation.
Ypsilanti Mayor Paul Schreiber said he had heard some talk about the idea but hadn’t seen anything in writing. He said he had not heard any discussion about how much such a proposal could save the city, but said it would be a complex undertaking.
Schreiber said he was confident Lange would bring the idea to council if it was a good idea.
“If it doesn’t save us money and it's not a good option, then he’s not going to bring it to council,” Schreiber said. “He has done a good job bringing ideas to council that are workable.”
Lange has also met with Ann Arbor City Manager Steve Powers to discuss a possible collaboration between the two departments. Lange said working with Ann Arbor is another alternative to the public safety department. Ann Arbor is also discussing a merger with Ann Arbor Township.
But Hobbs and Robb both said working with Ypsilanti Township makes more sense because Ann Arbor firefighters would have to drive through Ypsilanti Township to get to Ypsilanti.
"We could partner with the City of Okemos if we wanted," Robb said. "It only makes sense to do this with your neighbors."