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April 24, 2013

Ferndale to keep four grant-funded firefighters through year’s end

By Joshua Gordon
C & G Staff Writer

FERNDALE — Ferndale City Council members have been trying to cut $1 million from the city’s 2014 fiscal year budget, but during a budget session April 16, the City Council decided to keep four firefighters who will no longer be government funded, come July.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s SAFER Grant has allowed the Ferndale Fire Department to have the four extra firefighters on staff the past two years. After several attempts to acquire another grant without success, the city will keep the firefighters on staff for at least six more months by paying them out of the general fund reserve.

The estimated cost to keep all four firefighters through Dec. 31, 2013, is $186,143.

The option of six months allows Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan and the department to try and work with neighboring communities to set up a fire authority that would alleviate budget concerns from each city and allow for shared services.

“I think, realistically, we hope to create an authority, although that may be the most optimistic option out of it,” Sullivan said during the budget meeting. “Shared services and possible shifting of manpower to other peak hours in cooperation with another community could save both communities a lot of overtime, and there are other things we could achieve.”

While the council members went over several areas of the budget in previous weeks, the Fire Department layoffs seemed to attract most of the discussion time. Without keeping the firefighters, the general fund was expected to dip below 30 percent of expenses.

Councilman Scott Galloway said he would like to keep the Fire Department staffed to handle any emergency and not lose any revenue, but he feels keeping the four firefighters an extra six months is just delaying the inevitable.

“I want to keep as many firefighters out there as we can, but what I think we are really setting ourselves up for is to continue dipping in the fund balance and running deficits to keep these firefighters in, when ultimately we’re not going to be able to afford them,” Galloway said.

“I think it’s kicking the can down the road. I don’t see how we can go beyond that. I don’t see a real cost-saving solution on the horizon.”

The Fire Department is budgeted for 25 firefighters, but the SAFER grant has allowed it to operate with 29 personnel on staff. City Manager April Lynch laid out in a presentation that losing all four firefighters would significantly increase overtime for the remaining firefighters, and the department could lose revenue by having to privatize some of its ambulance services.

A fire authority would help in each of the areas that would arise without the four firefighters, but Galloway said budget savings from an authority could take several years to realize.

“If we had an agreement between Ferndale and another city today, we wouldn’t see anything from that for two to three years out,” Galloway said. “I don’t think we are being honest with ourselves that the financial aspect gets resolved. It’s blowing holes in our budget, which we may want to do, but I don’t think this makes any sense financially to do.”

Councilman Dan Martin and Councilwoman Melanie Piana were both in favor of allowing the firefighters to remain on staff for six months, with Martin expressing the extra time allows the Fire Department time to make the best decisions.

“My initial response would be that I don’t think dipping into the fund balance for six months is that unreasonable of a task to make sure we are having a good look,” Martin said. “I would be supportive to go through December so we can look at other options. I think we just need to afford the time to do that.”

Ferndale resident Greg Pawlica voiced his concerns to the council members about the city’s Headlee Amendment override that took place in May 2011. The override permitted the city to increase its authorized millage for five years, and Pawlica said many people supported it with the understanding that public safety positions would be secured by the millage.

“When we went to the voters, we sold this millage as a way to secure the levels for police and fire, and if we now are going to tell people that we are going to cut police and fire and still maintain the millage, you are going to have a lot of people upset,” he said. “We guaranteed ambulance service and proper staffing on police and fire. My concern is we are saying this is not what we are going to give you.”

In her recommendation, Lynch told the council members that the extra six months would give her and Sullivan a chance to work on the authority, as well as other options if an authority cannot be realized.

“Our hope over the last year was we would find some other communities to partner with,” she said.

“But I think, at the end of six months, we will know who is in it to win it, and the chief and I can realistically look at what we can do,” she said.

City Council will hold a public hearing during its formal meeting at 7:30 p.m. April 29, where the members will vote on the budget.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Joshua Gordon at jgordon@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1077.