City skips hiring deputy police chief, fire inspector in budget amendment

Admin urged to prepare groundwork for those roles soon

By: Eric Czarnik | Sterling Heights Sentry | Published January 26, 2022

STERLING HEIGHTS — A divided Sterling Heights City Council narrowly voted against approving a new deputy police chief and fire inspector in their latest amendment of the 2021-22 budget. But there was broad agreement to hire a deputy at a later date, as well as to find a way to get more inspections done.

It started during the Dec. 21 budget presentation. Sterling Heights Finance and Budget Director Jennifer Varney said the budget amendment has the latest predictions of spending and revenue. The amended 2021-22 budget has estimated general fund revenue at $113.72 million and estimated spending at $113.7 million, putting an additional $17,140 into the general fund balance, which would sit at 28.4% of spending.

As for spending, the budget amendment accounts for spending around $488,000 on six critical hires that were deemed critical after a manpower study was revealed in 2021, Varney said. Those positions are a financial services senior account clerk, utility services account clerk, assessing appraiser III, city clerk administrative assistant, information technology specialist, and community relations marketing manager. 

Varney said Sterling Heights has four full-time employees per 1,000 residents, making it one of the lowest ratios among Michigan cities with comparable communities. 

“As workload levels continue to increase, these important positions will ensure that residents continue to see the exemplary service they have become accustomed to here in Sterling Heights,” Varney said.

Varney said the city planned to reduce its other postemployment benefits fund contribution after previous years of overcontribution. The cut made funding the six critical hires possible, and the OPEB move should be sustainable for at least this budget and the next one, Varney said. 

Councilman Henry Yanez said hiring for all the critical positions is necessary, adding that “we are woefully understaffed.” He said that he wants the city to hire a new fire inspector, particularly to inspect commercial buildings. Councilman Michael Radtke agreed that the city needs a fire inspector, and he also sought a deputy police chief. Multiple city officials pressed the administration to prepare an analysis and proposed budget amendment to include those two positions for the next meeting, Jan. 4.

When the Jan. 4 meeting took place, the council learned additional information. While the costs to add both positions are expected to annually be a total of $345,000, only $120,000 was budgeted to last six months, Varney explained. The proposal would have funded that through an additional OPEB contribution decrease.

Yanez, a retired firefighter, said he heard the Fire Department was “nowhere near where we should be in our commercial fire inspections” and added that such inspections are “incredibly important.” He said it takes around four to six months to certify an inspector and sometimes a year in total for additional training. So every time the process of hiring one gets delayed, it pushes things back further, he said. 

He referenced the police discovery last September of a reportedly illegal marijuana grow operation.

“We have buildings that haven’t been inspected in a decade,” Yanez said. “We all know about the building that was hit by the garbage truck that … partially collapsed the wall and exposed an illegal marijuana grow (operation). 

“My understanding is that building hadn’t been inspected in nine years, hadn’t had anybody from the Fire Department in that building in nine years. Who knows what kind of unsafe operations are going on.”

Radtke added that a deputy police chief is essential because first responders have had to deal with a lot for the past couple of years, and the police chief, who “has been working very, very hard,” could use some added support.

When asked, City Manager Mark Vanderpool said neither the police chief nor the fire chief had formally requested either position to him, adding that Fire Chief Kevin Edmond didn’t recommend the inspector position at this time when speaking to him the previous night. 

“I don’t think we’re necessarily disputing the need,” Vanderpool said. “However, what administration is concerned about, and the reason we’re not recommending the amended positions in sort of this emergency fashion, is because we just really haven’t had a chance to analyze possible options.”

According to Varney, the default plan was to hire a new firefighter and promote someone from within the department to become a fire inspector. That said, labor unions haven’t gotten involved in negotiations yet, so the ultimate costs of a fire inspector or deputy police chief were still speculative, officials said.

Vanderpool emphasized that the city is still doing fire inspections, and he added that one idea for a possibly more cost-effective approach might be hiring multiple part-time retired firefighters and certifying them, though that hasn’t been analyzed yet.

Councilwoman Maria Schmidt said she didn’t oppose the two extra positions but believed that “the process is a little backwards, to me.” Councilwoman Barbara Ziarko also said she supported getting a deputy police chief and one — or maybe even three — fire inspectors, “but not tonight.” She added that she would like to discuss the topic further during the city’s strategic planning session in late January.

Councilwoman Deanna Koski said she has wanted a deputy police chief for at least 10 years. Mayor Michael Taylor said he favored the policy of increasing fire inspections but noted that the requests currently come with sparse study and details.

When the vote to add the two positions into the budget amendment came up, it ended 3-4 in failure. Ziarko, Schmidt, Taylor and Mayor Pro Tem Liz Sierawski voted no, and Koski, Yanez and Radtke voted yes. 

After that motion failed, Yanez made a motion to postpone a vote until February, after strategic planning. But that motion also failed 3-4. Then the council voted on the budget appropriations ordinance amendment as originally introduced. That passed 5-2, with Koski and Yanez voting no.

Taylor urged the administration to start union negotiations, work on a contract for a deputy police chief as soon as possible, and research cost-effective options for fire inspections. 

Vanderpool said administrators will work to have both initiatives in the next proposed budget, which is expected to be compiled in under 90 days. He also said he will give the council additional progress reports at the end of January and February.

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