Citizens committee recommends fire millage increase

By: Nico Rubello | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published July 8, 2013


Clinton Township trustees on July 15 will be asked to put a 1.25-mill increase for fire services before voters this fall, said township Supervisor Robert Cannon.

The requested millage increase, proposed over a nine-year period, recently came out of a four-person citizens committee appointed to consider how to cope with devastating revenue losses in the Clinton Township Fire Department. The committee’s recommendation, if enacted, would bring the number of fire department employees back up to 76 — the same number there were in January 2012, Cannon said.

For taxpayers, a 1.25-mill increase would bring the fire millage to slightly less than 6.25 mills. At the average residential taxable value of $58,000, the total millage would equate to $72.50 per year, based on township projections.

Mike Phy, the deputy administrative fire chief for the township, said the proposed figure would allow the township to replace aging equipment and increase the number of companies — or three-person crews, plus a fire rig — from five to six companies. Without the millage, he said, the township will have to reduce the number of companies by at least one.

Phy said he was happy with the figure the citizens committee came up with, which wouldn’t bring the fire department revenue back to pre-recession levels — several years ago, the fire department had seven crews — but the millage still would be enough to increase staffing.

Committee chair Bob Campbell said that after reviewing the fire department’s finances, examining the age and status of current equipment and posing numerous questions to Phy and Finance Director Donna Lauretti, the four citizens on the committee concluded that a millage increase was the only viable solution. The other Clinton Township residents on the committee were Sherman Cottingham, Heather Favazza and Kenneth Tabor.

Cannon said not all the applicants who applied were put on the committee.

The four members who were chosen emerged from a selection process that included six local community and business leaders screening applications, and then another three-person committee interviewing the applicants who made it through the screening.

The committee selected the nine-year duration so that its expiration in 2020 would coincide with the expiration of another fire millage.

Cannon, who concurs with the committee’s recommendation, said the Board of Trustees will re-evaluate the millage after the nine years are finished.

With the Board of Trustees’ approval, the township could put the proposal to an advisory vote of the public. The board then would have final say in what is implemented.

The seven-member Clinton Township Board of Trustees has the authority to enact a fire millage of up to 10 mills, but the supervisor said the township had never, in recent history, implemented a millage increase without an advisory vote.

Cannon said that having the requested 1.25-mill increase come from a citizens committee comprised of Clinton Township residents added to the legitimacy of the request.

Because tax revenues comprise 95 percent of fire department revenue, the decrease in property values have directly impacted the department’s budget. Cannon said fire revenues have fallen from more than $15.2 million in 2009 to a projected $12 million for the fiscal year ending in March 2014.

To meet declining revenues, the fire department has decreased its staffing level from 99 to 63 firefighters. Of that, the number of firefighters trained to suppress fires has dropped to 55 firefighters — down 35 percent from five years ago.

“As employees left, openings have not been filled and several other non-firefighting positions have been eliminated,” Cannon wrote in a recent letter to the Board of Trustees.

To cope with revenue losses for both departments, the township has taken several measures, including having personnel pay more of their insurance costs. The township also stopped replacing personnel as they leave and started transferring police dispatch to Macomb County.

But officials say that hasn’t been enough, and in order to sustain fire staffing and services at the current levels, additional funding is needed.

Some had suggested making more use of available grants, but dollars are never guaranteed, Phy said.

For instance, the township earlier this year was denied an extension of a federal SAFER grant that has been paying for 12 firefighters. Since the SAFER grant expired in June, those 12 have been kept on-staff using the township’s rainy day fund, Cannon said.

But without any funding increasing, Phy said he feared the fire department would have to cut down the number of stations and fire trucks in service at any one time.

Campbell said while the committee didn’t have a crystal ball, the figure was based on reasonable projections of the rate of inflation and property values increasing, as capped by Michigan’s Proposal A. The committee, he added, also had to consider that further staffing reductions potentially could harm the township’s ISO rating, which impacts homeowner insurance rates.

Even with the increase, taxpayers would still be paying less in taxes overall compared to five years ago, he said.

Campbell said the committee found no surprises during the process, which included examining fire department finances and current and projected property values, among other data.

“I felt very comfortable that all our questions were fully answered, and honestly answered,” he said. “It all made sense.”

In the meantime, a separate citizens committee examining boosting revenue for the Clinton Township Police Department, which also has seen its revenues drop with property values during the last half-decade. The police committee comprises chair George Bundy, Tom Ensign, Walter Macelt and Darwin Roche, along with the township’s Assistant Finance Director Mary Hein and Police Chief Fred Posavetz.