Ypsilanti officials consider proposal to consolidate fire, police into one department
Jeffrey Smith | AnnArbor.com
Ypsilanti officials are weighing a plan to combine the city's police and fire departments into a single department of public safety to combat rising expenses and shrinking funds.
The proposal would cross-train police officers and firefighters, cutting the department down to three full-time firefighters.
That threat, following years of budget trimming, prompted Fire Chief Jon Ichesco to submit his retirement plans in late September.
The police department has 25 sworn officers and four civilians. The fire department has 18 firefighters.
Through attrition, by the end of this year the fire department will be down to 15. If this plan is implemented the department would further decline to having just three firefighters, three lieutenants, and one fire marshal, who would also serve as a lieutenant.
The plan calls for a fire deputy chief, police deputy chief and a director of public safety whose responsibilities would encompass the entire department. All together there would be about 42 employees. Of that number, 20 would be cross-trained public safety officers.
If implemented, Ypsilanti would be the first city within the county to cross-train police and firefighters.
Tom Perkins | For AnnArbor.com
Fire Union President Ken Hobbs said the plan would effectively eliminate a layer of command from the department and stretch resources thin.
"Currently we have three captains and three lieutenants," he said. "The plan eliminates captains. They’re two separate professions and if you try to combine the two, you’re going to water it down.
"The police side is demanding and the fire is demanding. It’s a huge difference for us in the way we operate. I don’t think the city has a plan."
Police Chief Amy Walker supports the plan and said everyone has taken concessions.
"We've had five retirements since June and none of those positions have been filled due to budget cuts," Walker said. "... I think we're exploring it and seeing if it's the best option.
"It's not like this model hasn't been tested. Is it the best for Ypsilanti? Time will tell."
With only 20 spots available for cross-trained individuals from both departments, Hobbs and Ichesco are concerned about how many employees could be left without jobs due to the new model.
"There are operational problems (with the plan)," Ichesco said. "It's just a logistic nightmare for me to think about right now."
Walker said several communities throughout the state have implemented this model and have found success with it. She cited Kalamazoo as an example, which is one of the largest with more than 300 cross-trained public officers.
Walker said she is concerned about officers being spread to thin and said this is why the current business model is not working.
"My police department can't continue this way," she said. "This could be a more efficient way of doing business. (Union officials) want a detailed plan and I want that too, but they have to certainly allow the city enough time."
City Manager Ralph Lange declined to comment on the specifics of his proposed plan because he said it's too premature in the discussion.
"I appreciate the fact that they are concerned and have doubts or don’t maybe want to do this, (but) I think it's really early to comment," Lange said. "...I just don’t think it's possible to continue to do business as usual and what that will look like is not decided."
The fire department recently found out it was denied a $1.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant from the Department of Homeland Security. If received, the grant would have been used to hire up to seven firefighters. Ichesco has re-applied for the 2012 round.
"My plan has been all along that you formulate your budget not anticipating or budgeting in that you're going to get grants," Lange said. "I'm trying to structure the city's finances where we can provide services whether we get the grants or not...
"We are looking at everything in terms of finances and how we can best serve the people, and that includes police and fire."
Lange said a "hard look" is being taken at the budget and how police and fire deliver services.
Mayor Paul Schreiber said the city has now gone twice to the voters in hopes of securing an income tax to boost city revenue. With both failing, the city is continuing its search for possible revenue generators while making sure basic services are still provided.
"What you’re seeing is in order for us to be successful as a city, everybody is going to have to give to get something that’s going to work for our city and residents," Schreiber said. "...All I know is Mr. Lange is doing a good job working on all of the possible options to make our city as sustainable as possible.
"It's still a work in process. No decision has been made."
Ichesco said many public safety departments serve as an overarching umbrella, while allowing the two departments to remain separate.
"Pittsfield Township is one, but they are not cross-trained," he said. "That's been the most common way: to put them under one umbrella, but you have to have adequate staffing to do so."
Ichesco has voiced his opposition to the plan and said there are other viable options worth considering.
"There are options from a functional district, to going to a full authority to contracting out," he said. "When you do this it has to be specific for you. It has to be tailored around your work I think a regional authority is probably the most advantageous to go with."
Hobbs and Ichesco said prior regional authority discussions had taken place in 2007 with the city of Ann Arbor and its previous City Administrator Roger Fraser. Although those discussions never panned out, Ichesco said they recently were put back on the table.
"They are again interested in looking at this regionally, but this public safety system is something Mr. Lange is familiar with," Ichesco said.
Schreiber confirmed that talks have taken place with other neighboring communities about a possible regional fire authority. Locally, other municipalities have not only explored, but ultimately created authorities. Chelsea has had a fire department since 1881, while the regional fire authority, which brought together the city, Lima, Lyndon and Sylvan townships, began in 1999.
"I think when you stand back and look at it, it makes all the sense in the world to have a regional fire department," Schreiber said. "It gets very complex very quickly and it's going to take a considerable amount of effort from everybody."
Schreiber said the creation of a regional authority has been a goal of Ichesco's for a long while.
"In a perfect world that’s where I would like to see us go," Schreiber said.
With Ypsilanti Township adjacent to the city, some city officials have suggested combining fire services with it as a more feasible option, but only if the two municipalities would be able to agree upon terms.
"We have had some informal talks about that, but I think it's pretty fair to say that Ypsilanti Township is in better financial standing than Ypsilanti," he said. "We have to make some changes...Maybe it'll be an outcome of these negotiations.
"... It’s a tough situation."
Under Public Act 345, Ichesco was required to retire by age 65, which he turned last year. Ischeco is also enrolled in a program that would have allowed him to stay through 2014.
"I knew at some point I was going to be gone and I was trying to put together a system or fire protection package for the citizens that had some life to it, some longevity," he said. "Would I have time to re-engineer all this? Probably not."
Instead, Ichesco has chosen to leave ahead of time because of the plan that he believes could have a drastic effect on how city services are delivered.
“The SAFER grant isn’t pushing me out the door,” Ichesco said. “It’s just one of the straw’s on the camel’s back You know when it’s time to retire not by age, but when you don’t want to walk in the back door. You have to know when it’s time to fold up.”
Ichesco said he contemplated staying, but ultimately decided it's time for someone else to take over the department as it continues to evolve.
"There’s a lot more fun things to do than fight a battle on two fronts," Ichesco said. "It's better for me to go now and let someone come in and work and engineer this as opposed to me taking pieces and parts and trying to make something out of it. You can't. You’re starting from scratch with this."