Warren, Hazel Park FD merger talks continue

No deal yet as cities continue to study details of plan

By: Andy Kozlowski, Brian Louwers | Online Only | Published May 9, 2013

 Officials said no deal had been reached May 9 on a plan to merge firefighting services in Warren and Hazel Park.

Officials said no deal had been reached May 9 on a plan to merge firefighting services in Warren and Hazel Park.

Photo by Brian C. Louwers

WARREN — Sources said Warren and Hazel Park officials had been in talks this month about a combined EMS service operated by the Warren Fire Department, but it appeared at press time May 9 that an ambulance transport deal was off the table.  

Officials in both cities now say further study is needed to determine the feasibility and potential advantages of merging both fire departments, possibly before the start of the new fiscal year July 1.

Warren Fire Commissioner Wilbert “Skip” McAdams said he told members of the Warren City Council May 6 that the city’s legal staff had a tentative contract for EMS service under review and that the “interim” deal could have conceivably been finalized by the end of the month.  Such a deal would have been a step toward the merger of both fire departments and would have involved Warren hiring up to six paramedics currently employed by Hazel Park.

After a meeting between officials from both cities May 8, it looked like negotiations had turned away from a deal on combined EMS alone toward the potential merger of the entire fire departments, or nothing.

McAdams said any plan would require approvals from both city councils and that he still hoped a final agreement for a complete merger, under the command of Warren Fire Administration, could be inked sometime before the next fiscal year begins.

Sources said the broader deal would require language approving the contract for service across county lines and the merger of separate firefighter unions. Plans for handling retiree health care and pensions would also need to be addressed in the final pact.

McAdams said he hoped the sides could reach a deal in the neighborhood of 10 years that would be mutually beneficial to both cities.

But top city administrators in both Warren and Hazel Park remained guarded about whether a final deal could be reached at all, given the complexities.

Warren Mayor Jim Fouts said any agreement would have to benefit Warren financially. McAdams said the city would gain as much as $450,000 a year in revenue from EMS transport in Hazel Park, but Fouts said the administration’s financial team had questions about the plan and would continue to review the details.

Fouts said he’d direct an administrative committee to study the plan further and that an immediate EMS merger, one taking place as soon as mid-May, was now unlikely.

“That can’t take place. We’re not ready to do any immediate merger or any kind of thing with Hazel Park. We must have some financial gain to pay for what we are going to do. We’re not seeing that yet,” Fouts said. “There will be some talks over probably a month or more.”

Hazel Park City Manager Ed Klobucher confirmed that no agreement had been reached and that many variables needed to be finalized before a deal that is truly a benefit to both cities could be reached. 

“We’re in discussions with Warren regarding cooperative endeavors regarding fire services. Right now, we have not reached an agreement,” Klobucher said. “Michigan’s system of municipal finance is fundamentally broken, and it’s had an adverse impact on communities across Michigan, especially inner-ring suburbs like Hazel Park. Even with the recent millage passed by our voters, due to declining property values, we are actually in a worse financial position now than we were before we passed the millage originally, so we have to constantly look for ways to provide services to our residents in a cost-effective manner, and that’s why we’re undertaking these discussions with neighboring communities.

“We have not done a deal yet. I’m constantly talking to neighboring communities about ways to save the taxpayers some money while maintaining their service levels," Klobucher said.

The EMS deal as discussed would have reportedly involved Warren hiring six paramedics currently employed by the Hazel Park Fire Department. McAdams said crews would have continued to work out of Hazel Park’s only fire station, on Russell south of Nine Mile Road and west of Dequindre, backed up as needed by units from Warren’s six fire stations. Warren’s closest firehouse to Hazel Park is Station #3, near Nine Mile and Ryan.

According to Hazel Park Fire Chief Mark Karschnia, the department responded to a total of 2,610 runs last year, including 2,111 calls for medical service.

Hazel Park has 17 full-time firefighters, one frontline ambulance, one reserve ambulance, two fire engines and a ladder truck.

Warren responded to approximately 15,000 calls for service last year, about 12,000 of which were medical runs.

The Warren Fire Department generates about $2.25 million annually through its EMS transport program.

If the final deal comes to pass, McAdams said patients transported within Hazel Park would likely be subject to the same billing guidelines used in Warren.

For patients living or working within the city, the Warren Fire Department accepts any amount paid by the patient’s insurance as payment in full for the service. Warren absorbs the cost of transporting patients without insurance who live or work in the city.

Karschnia said Hazel Park bills residents not covered by insurance but reviews each case on an individual basis. For residents who are covered by insurance, the city takes what they can get from the insurance company, with little to no out-of-pocket expense from the insured resident.

Both Warren and Hazel Park recently approved public safety millages to sustain operations.

Three-quarters of Hazel Park’s voters passed a five-year, 9.8-mill special assessment to support police and fire services May 3, 2011, avoiding massive cuts of 18 to 20 full-time positions and retaining advanced life support services including ambulance transport. At 2011 property values, the millage was set to raise $2,150,000 each year for five years, yet declining property values means the average taxpayer still saves $18 a year.

Warren voters passed a 4.9-mill tax increase last August that Mayor Jim Fouts pledged to use to maintain public safety staffing at 2012 levels for the next five years.

McAdams said Warren had 102 firefighters and 10 open budgeted positions as of May 6. He said Warren plans to hire 11 more firefighters this month and that the preferred choice in a complete merger would involve Warren hiring all of Hazel Park’s employed fire personnel.

In February, Warren officials approved acceptance of a $2.79 million Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters Grant, awarded to the city in December through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program. The grant can be used to hire 18 more firefighters.

The SAFER grant expires in two years and officials have discussed conditional language for firefighters hired with grant money.  They discussed a “last in, first out” stipulation whereas the 18 employees lowest on the seniority list would be laid off first if the city cannot afford to keep them when the SAFER grant expires.