Discussions heat up for Ferndale, Hazel Park fire authority in 2014

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published January 15, 2014

 The Ferndale and Hazel Park fire departments will look to form a fire authority in 2014, which would be separate from the two city governments and have its own millage.

The Ferndale and Hazel Park fire departments will look to form a fire authority in 2014, which would be separate from the two city governments and have its own millage.

Photo by Deb Jacques

FERNDALE/HAZEL PARK — Discussions about merging the Ferndale and Hazel Park fire departments have been ongoing for several years now, but 2014 might be the year both cities make the leap.

With budget cuts needing to be made in both cities, keeping the fire service levels at their current state would be unrealistic, Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter said.

By creating a fire authority with the two departments, officials believe that it would not only take financial strain off each city, but also boost manpower and available equipment for both fire staffs.

“A fire authority would take us out of the general fund, and we would be a separate taxing authority, which would take stress off the city and protect the emergency services,” Ferndale Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan said. “All the cities that have formed fire authorities in Michigan, like the Brighton or Howell area, it has also taken the stress level off, as far as losing personnel, and they were able to build up personnel and equipment. It takes the worry off elected officials and the city manager.”

According to Coulter, the city has two options when it comes to the Ferndale Fire Department — form a fire authority or cut services.

“We studied merging the two departments a couple of years ago, and for one reason or another, it was not feasible, but doing a fire authority still makes some sense,” he said. “The other options are, frankly, going to be how do we trim services and offer a fire department within a budget that is shrinking. Something needs to be decided relatively quickly about the long-term funding of fire services in Ferndale, because we can’t sustain the current expenses with the current revenues.”

In April, the Ferndale City Council approved keeping four previously grant-funded firefighters on staff through the end of 2013 — at a cost of $186,143 — while trying to cut $1 million from the city’s 2014 fiscal year budget.

The thought at the time was that the extra six months would allow Sullivan to work with neighboring fire departments, like Hazel Park, and try to form the fire authority.

“Right now, going into a budget deficit of around $2.5 million, they cannot get rid of it in general fund operations because everything was trimmed the last few years,” Sullivan said. “That means we lose people, and that cuts into and affects our services. If we could set up a fire authority and our own financial branch, that would work out better and we could keep (services) the same or probably even improve.”

The Ferndale Fire Department currently employees 26 firefighters, a fire marshal and a fire chief along with having four fire engines, a ladder truck and two ambulances. In Hazel Park, they have 15 firefighters, a fire marshal and a fire chief with two fire engines, a ladder truck and an ambulance.

“Just like everyone else in the world, when you are getting a service, you want to keep that service, and we are offering advanced life support and fire protection, and people don’t want to see those get cut,” Hazel Park Fire Chief Mark Karschnia said. “They see these as an essential service, and you can have all the equipment and technology, but it requires manpower. You can’t fight a fire with just a fire truck; you need guys to operate the truck.”

As a fire authority, the departments would serve as an independent operating unit that would have its own millage to collect taxes. In order to form an authority, the voters of each city would have to approve it.

Sullivan said he is hoping to send this to the residents to vote on in May, but that is “an extremely aggressive plan.”

Coulter said he wouldn’t expect taxes to be raised at all in Ferndale; rather, the money that currently goes to the city for fire services would be redirected to the authority and combined with the taxes from Hazel Park.

“The taxes are part of what we are studying, but my initial thought in Ferndale is to not have a tax increase at all and just transferring the mills we currently pay,” he said. “I’m not sure of the final numbers, but that is all part of the background and due diligence we are still investigating. But the basic idea is to take the mills out of our city budget and move it over to the fire authority.”

Hazel Park City Manager Ed Klobucher said Hazel Park’s biggest problem when trying to maintain fire services has been the declining property values in the city. While property values are on the rise, it would take some time for the city to see a significant increase in revenue.

“Even though our residents have very wisely and generously passed every millage we asked for, the decline in property values was so significant with the collapse of the real estate market a few years ago that we are looking for ways to sustain services,” he said. “Our property values may be on the upswing now, but due to caps set by the Headlee Amendment and Proposal A, it will take at least 20 years to climb back to the levels of revenue we were collecting in 2009.”

Ferndale and Hazel Park already have a mutual aid agreement, along with Madison Heights, which provides help if needed in emergency situations. Still, Klobucher said a fire authority could help in the long-term.

“But again, we’re holding our own: our employees have made sacrifices here in Hazel Park, and we’re always looking for long term solutions,” he said. “But there’s more research to be done regarding this fire authority before we go to our voters with any proposals. This (fire authority) wouldn’t save money upfront, but in the long-run, with capital outlays for equipment and such, we could see some savings.”

The Ferndale Fire Department currently provides fire services for Royal Oak Township and Pleasant Ridge, and Sullivan said under each contract, the cities would have the opportunity to become part of the authority or continue the contractual services.

Having other cities join would be the ideal situation, Sullivan said, but he knows something must be done soon to not disrupt the current operating services.

“It is like a ‘Field of Dreams’ thing, where if we build it, they will come,” he said. “If we get this going, I think we have other cities that will be interested with the fiscal savings by joining or contracting.

“Either way, the Ferndale Fire Department will change before 2015 because there is not enough money to keep up the same level. How we change is what we are trying to figure out.”

Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski contributed to this story.