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January 17, 2014

Hazel Park, Ferndale talk of possible fire merger in 2014

Cities are still in exploratory phase of a potential ‘fire authority’

By Andy Kozlowski and Joshua Gordon
C & G Staff Writers

HAZEL PARK/FERNDALE — The cities of Hazel Park and Ferndale continue to discuss the possibility of merging fire operations, with the dialogue now shifting to the creation of a potential fire authority.

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.

In theory, such a merger would cut costs to both cities, while boosting manpower and available equipment. Financial pressures in Ferndale are forcing the city to consider such a move sooner rather than later.

“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,” said Ferndale Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan. “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.”

Ferndale Mayor Dave Coulter said that keeping fire services at current levels would be unrealistic, and that their only options are to cut services or form a fire authority.

“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, Ferndale City Council approved keeping four previously grant-funded firefighters on staff through the end of 2013 — a cost of more than $186,000 — while trying to cut $1 million from the city’s 2014 budget. At the time, the hope was Ferndale could form a fire authority with a neighboring community in the six extra months.

“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 has 26 firefighters, a fire marshal and a fire chief. They have four fire engines, a ladder truck and two ambulances.

The Hazel Park Fire Department has 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,” said Hazel Park Fire Chief Mark Karschnia.

“They see these as an essential service, and you can have all the equipment and technology, but it requires manpower,” he continued. “You can’t fight a fire with just a fire truck; you need guys to operate the truck.”

Sullivan said he is hoping residents will be able to vote on a fire authority this 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 previously indicated that the city’s fire department already runs so efficiently that savings are difficult to attain.

He also says that Hazel Park’s diminished property values makes current service levels difficult to maintain. While property values are on the rise in Hazel Park, it will take some time for the city to see a significant rise in revenues.

“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,” Klobucher 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.

“We’re holding our own — our employees have made sacrifices here in Hazel Park, and we’re always looking for long-term solutions,” Klobucher 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 to continue 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 service levels.

“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,” Sullivan concluded. “How we change is what we are trying to figure out.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Andy Kozlowski at akozlowski@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1104.

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