Council decides to send public safety to a vote

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published July 29, 2015

HARPER WOODS — A lot has changed in the four years since the ballot proposal to amend the city charter in favor of a Public Safety Department failed to garner enough votes among the city’s residents.

Since then, the union for the firefighters has agreed to allow cross-trained police officers to assist them in fighting fires, MedStar has taken over as the city’s main ambulance service, and former Police Chief James Burke was given a new title as public safety director.

All of that change hasn’t fixed the problem that city officials have acknowledged concerning the city charter. With the 2011 vote, the city still must maintain separate Police and Fire departments.

It’s something city officials are hoping to change now. The Harper Woods City Council voted unanimously July 13 to put a charter amendment on the November ballot that would allow the city to combine the Police and Fire departments into a Public Safety Department.

Council members Valerie Kindle and Charles Flanagan asked that the issue be placed on the council agenda for a vote.

“I do support this ballot issue for the same reasons I initially ran for council,” Flanagan said in an email. “Harper Woods is broke, and the Fire Department should be cross-trained, as the police currently are, and contribute more than the very little they currently are tasked.”

Flanagan said privatizing ambulance service did not cause a decline in service, as firefighters had feared. Also, he pointed to the use of public safety departments in the Grosse Pointes.

“This city is assessing 15 mills to our homes on top of normal property taxes to maintain what city services we still provide,” Flanagan said.

He believes fully integrating to public safety would save money for the city.

City Manager Randolph Skotarczyk said that the city is dealing with financial issues and has lost a number of staff due to cutbacks in recent years.

Switching to a fully integrated Public Safety Department would not have any immediate effect on the city’s current makeup of cross-trained public safety officers and full-time firefighters, Skotarczyk said.

Skotarczyk still would negotiate with firefighters on issues pertaining to their contract.

“We’re still obligated to negotiate with the firefighters,” he said.

There is no intent to let go of any existing employees through this change, Skotarczyk said.

Also, he said, no one will be forced to cross-train. The city currently has seven full-time firefighters and must keep six per contract. The only way they would be replacing firefighters with cross-trained public safety officers is through attrition over time, which the change to the charter would allow.

“I think it’s ultimately necessary,” Skotarczyk said of the charter change.

“There are problems with trying to maintain a hybrid department,” he said. “I definitely feel that it is something that for the citizens of Harper Woods, public safety is the best route we can go.”

Right now, the city has 25 full-time police officers. The city’s biggest demand is police service, he said.

Having all cross-trained officers would benefit the city, he said.

While there are people who emphasize the benefits of having two separate, full-time departments, Skotarczyk said the city’s financial situation is the main factor.

“It’s a matter of what we can afford,” he said.

Changes would not happen overnight if the charter amendment were to pass.

“We have to look to the future and where we’re going in the future,” Skotarczyk said.

Burke also favors the change.

“I’ve been a strong proponent of public safety for a long time,” he said.

Burke added that he was pleased when the fire union agreed to allow cross-trained officers to assist with fires.

“The program’s been incredibly successful,” Burke said.

That has been helpful as some nearby communities cut off mutual aid agreements with the city due to staffing issues in Harper Woods. The Grosse Pointes and Harper Woods continue to have working mutual aid agreements.

Now they have 18 cross-trained police, with more set to cross-train in coming months.

He also praised the city’s firefighters.

“They’ve done a great job and are very cooperative,” Burke said.

“All of the employees need to understand that it’s for our residents,” he said. He said that agreements potentially have staved off bankruptcy and other financial issues.

He praised both MedStar and the Grosse Pointe public safety officers.

“I’m very proud of all of the people in the Police (Department) and the Fire Department who work together to make things good for the community,” Burke said, adding that a change of the charter “can do nothing but enhance the number of police officers we have available on the streets and also enhance the number of firefighters.”

As for the fate of the new ballot proposal, Flanagan said that the last proposal failed because city officials did not advocate for its passage. While they can’t use tax dollars to support a ballot proposal, money can be raised through an outside group to support one. The opposition at that time spent time and money getting the word out about their concerns.

“The former ballot proposal lost by a meager margin with an apathetic 22 percent voter turnout,” Flanagan said. “With a little effort, and with the voters realizing they are paying assessments that are on top of property taxes and not deductible on tax returns, I think common sense will prevail and our city’s financial outlook may improve.”

No one spoke in opposition to the proposal during the July 13 council meeting.

A representative from the fire union could not be reached by press time.