City Manager calls contract step closer to public safety

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published January 11, 2013

HARPER WOODS — When it comes to the public safety fight in Harper Woods, there has been tension in the air for years, but it’s possible that things are starting to ease a bit.

That seems to be what city officials are hoping they are seeing, with a contract negotiated between City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk and the firefighter’s union, which covers July 2010 through the end of this year.

They are calling it a move toward a public safety department, which is something they’ve wanted for years.

“I believe that this agreement is a first step on a more cooperative relationship and establishes the initial framework of the Department of Public Safety,” City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk stated in a memo to the mayor and council.

After years of contention in Harper Woods regarding public safety and cross-training, the firefighters and city have come to an initial agreement in a tentative contract that was approved 6-1 at the Jan. 7 council meeting. Firefighters also agreed not to oppose the city in their attempt to establish a cross-trained public safety department with a fire department, police department and cross-trained officers, Skotarczyk said.

“While some may view this as a small step, I know, to the firefighters, this is a large leap for them,” Skotarczyk stated.

The firefighters agreed to the use of part-time firefighters and cross-trained police officers, but the city agrees not to force firefighters to cross-train and agrees to keep six full-time firefighters on staff.

Skotarczyk called the agreement a huge step forward, at the meeting.

Like many city officials, the firefighters are pleased with the outcome of this agreement, as well.

“We are extremely optimistic and excited to work with the city and resolve many issues that have been ongoing for decades,” local firefighter union President Nathan Butler said in an email. “The city and the union took huge steps forward and met in the middle.

“We can now move forward and improve the already great police, fire, and EMS services this city deserves,” he said. “I applaud the City Council, and the city manager for their hard work and commitment to the citizens of Harper Woods.”

Not everyone concurred that the agreement was in the best interest of the city, however. Council member Charles Flanagan was passionate in his opposition to the agreement. He disagreed that it was a step forward and called it a slap in the face of the police officers who he said voluntarily opened up their contract and made significant concessions.

“I contend it is a backward step and not a small step toward public safety,” Flanagan said in an email to Skotarczyk. “You committed to a public safety concept inclusive of a separate police and fire department? I’m still scratching my head on that one.

“That is what we currently have and is not what council has been trying to accomplish this past year,” he said. “Nothing structurally changes, and the parameters are established to continue in this fashion in successor contracts.”

However, Skotarczyk said that the city had been pursuing a blended public safety option.

Flanagan raised issues with wages and other areas of the agreement. He felt it wasn’t a fair contract, in comparison to voluntary concessions police had made and the extra work police are taking on as cross-trained officers. 

“The police are left with more work in a community with extra crime and the firefighters are left to fight their one fire every six weeks,” Flanagan said. “The firemen are happy. You gave them everything.

“I don’t see the logic in pulling cross-trained police to fight the fires with unneeded firefighters supervising a fire incident and, at the conclusion, the firemen go back to bed and the cops go back on patrol,” he said in the email to Skotarczyk. “This contract, in my opinion, is totally unacceptable.”

The city has tried to implement a cross-trained fleet for some time. They opened up the option of cross-training to both departments and many police jumped on board. However, a lawsuit was decided in the favor of the firefighter’s union that the city’s use of cross-trained officers to implement a public safety unit would be a violation of city charter, which provides for two separate departments for police and fire.

The city attempted to get the voters to approve a charter change, but that was shot down in the May 2011 election. City officials plan to get the measure in front of the voters again this year.

At the meeting, council members said that the ability to use cross-trained police in the city during the window of time before the election will allow them to ease the minds of anyone in the city who had concerns about the change.

“If we can get it by agreement for a period of time and show that the problems won’t arise as feared, then I think we’ll have an easier time when it’s on the ballot,” council member Daniel Palmer said.

Flanagan wanted to table the issue because, as newer council members, he said he and council member Valerie Kindle hadn’t been given an opportunity to review the earlier contract that this agreement was extended from.

With the city’s financial situation, he has concerns about how much the contract will cost the city.

“Citizens earning decent wages are fleeing this city, as evidenced by the SEMCOG information I presented at the last meeting. Average family income is down $16,000. They are not leaving because of fires,” he said in an email to Skotarczyk. “You have every firefighter member remaining after two buyouts, which incidentally the pension fund cannot withstand at 57 (percent) funded, as lieutenants and captains?”

He had said most of the firefighters are higher ranking and asked about demotions to firefighters and sergeants.

“The police department has been cut 30 (percent),” he said.

Flanagan said that the city lost two other like-minded city council members who resigned in the last several months, so he is only one vote. 

He believes the city manager should have gone to arbitration instead.

Skotarczyk said public safety isn’t something they could have gained through 312 arbitration.

“This does open the door (to public safety),” he said. 

Skotarczyk said the contract puts the firefighters at 2010 wages, similar to the police.

“All of these contracts have things that need to be adjusted economically,” he said.

“This certainly is not a slap on the face of the police officers,” Skotarczyk said in response to Flanagan’s comment.

Skotarczyk said he continues to work with all unions on changes that will help the city tackle budgetary concerns, now and into the future.

In his memo to the mayor and council, he states that this agreement doesn’t provide for reductions in wages and benefits. However, he said that negotiations will begin again for the next contract term, in which he is looking to achieve cost-saving changes.

Like Skotarczyk, Kindle said she was pleased with this move, adding that she had watched this issue as a resident for years.

“I thought it was a first step to unify this community once again,” she said. “We have been so divided with public safety.

“We have moved a couple of steps ahead, not backwards,” she said.

Mayor Pro Tem Cheryl Costantino also thought this was a good step forward.

“We are working toward resolution. We are working toward making this place better and better and better,” she said. “This contract is part of our transition toward improving things.”

Cross-trained police have been fighting fires as mutual aid with the Grosse Pointes.

Harper Woods has dealt with concerns from its mutual-aid partners for some time, due to issues with staffing levels after Harper Woods worked to tackle major financial shortfalls.

In 2010, both Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores ended their mutual-aid pacts with Harper Woods, due to the dwindling fire staff in Harper Woods. At the time, those communities felt they would have been supplementing the staffing levels in Harper Woods via mutual aid, but Harper Woods wouldn’t have been able to keep up their end of the mutual-aid agreement.

That left the Grosse Pointes as the last communities willing to work with Harper Woods, but they, too, have watched the situation in Harper Woods carefully. Grosse Pointe Woods, as the closest community to Harper Woods, may have the biggest incentive to pay close attention to what is happening with Harper Woods staffing and the public safety issue. 

The approved tentative agreement includes changes like reducing staff through attrition and early retirement of at least one in the department.

The agreement also addresses the contracting out of ambulance service.

“The agreement allows for the contracting of ambulance service, but provides that our firefighters will remain paramedics and first responders for medical runs, which I believe is in the best interest of our residents,” Skotarczyk stated.

City Council member Vivian Sawicki said she agreed with having the firefighter-paramedics on scene for medical calls in the city.

“(Residents) like having them at the door,” Sawicki said, even if they are not the ones doing the transport. “They don’t want to lose their first-response fire department in medical issues.

“I’ve never seen this much movement from the fire department, and this does please me,” Sawicki said of the agreement.