Fire, medical runs rise in Hazel Park

Feb. 24 vote on SMORSA millage is critical, chief says

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 18, 2015

 The Hazel Park Fire Department continues to see its fire runs and medical runs increase each year. Staffing is tight, but they still manage an average three-minute response time.

The Hazel Park Fire Department continues to see its fire runs and medical runs increase each year. Staffing is tight, but they still manage an average three-minute response time.

Photo by Deb Jacques

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HAZEL PARK — The Hazel Park Fire Department isn’t growing in terms of manpower, but run volume continued to climb in 2014.

“We rise 4-5 percent consistently, every year,” said Hazel Park Fire Chief Richard Story. “I’d say that’s the general trend of the times, but it’s hard to say why.”

Recently released stats by the HPFD show that medical runs totaled 2,240 last year, up from 2,131 the year before. Structure fires totaled 677, up from 557. Transport calls totaled 1,461, up from 1,336.

That’s an increase of roughly 100 to 125 incidents in each category.

Story said that about 30 of those calls were related to the flood that swept through town last summer. Changes to people’s insurance policies may also explain more residents relying on firefighter-paramedics for medical needs.

The HPFD continues to run with a minimum manning of five personnel per day and a maximum of six. Story said that six virtually never happens, since someone is always out for one reason or another, such as illness or injury. 

“This runs us pretty tight,” Story said. “With the amount of runs we have, if we have a fire situation and a medical situation at the same time, which inevitably happens, we’ll only have three men for the structure fire, with the potential but not the assurance of automatic mutual aid from a neighboring community. Ninety percent of the time, we’ll get help from another city, but there’s always the possibility they won’t be there, since they may be dealing with their own fire or medical run.”

Even so, the HPFD has been able to maintain an average response time of just three minutes, something in which Story takes pride.


SMORSA
That could all change if residents of Hazel Park and Eastpointe don’t approve the millage up for vote on Feb. 24, Story said. The proposal seeks to establish a new funding authority for fire services in both cities, called SMORSA — the South Macomb Oakland Regional Services Authority. Without it, Story said his department won’t be able to maintain current service levels.

“If the SMORSA millage doesn’t pass, you’ll see our numbers go down to three or four personnel per day, which would eliminate our paramedic ambulance. Then you’ll be getting private EMS,” Story said. “While we respond within three minutes, private EMS averages about 10-15 minutes, since they’re dispatching from another location, and they’re busy with more and more calls from other communities.

“So with private EMS, response time will triple or quadruple,” Story continued. “And in this business, seconds count. Switching to private EMS will definitely increase the death toll in our community. People will have heart attacks, for example, and nobody will be able to get to them in time.”

Both cities have to approve SMORSA in order for it to take effect. The authority would then collect taxes from both cities and fund fire services in both cities.

Each city would still handle its own fire runs and medical runs. This would just be a new way to pay for them. Automatic mutual aid pacts would also remain in effect — something else that might not be possible without new revenue.

“Without SMORSA, our decreased numbers will mean we won’t be able to honor our automatic mutual aid agreements,” Story said. “So sooner or later, our partners in neighboring communities would abolish those agreements because it’s a two-way street, and if we can’t reciprocate, it won’t work.”

Currently, both police and fire in Hazel Park are funded by a five-year, 9.8-mill special assessment that voters approved in 2011. The special assessment was meant to bring in $2.1 million, but in mere years it was reduced to $1.2 million due to declining property values.

SMORSA would reduce this 9.8-mill special assessment to 2.8 mills. Then it would request another 14 mills, bringing the total millage rate for police and fire to 16 mills.

For the average resident of Hazel Park, this would cost an extra 38 cents a day, or roughly $139 a year, for the next 20 years. 


Staying in control
The city has made many efforts to control costs. An across-the-board 5 percent pay cut is permanently in effect for all bargaining units. The Police Department, Fire Department and City Manager Ed Klobucher all took another 2.5 percent pay cut, on top of the 5 percent. City Hall also remains on a 32-hour work week, among other cost-saving measures.

Further cuts would start to compromise city services and risk losing talented personnel to other communities that can offer competitive wages. The city already struggles with the issue of new police and fire personnel using Hazel Park as a training ground, then leaving as soon as more lucrative offers appear elsewhere.

As Klobucher tells it, part of Hazel Park’s problem is bound up in the city’s history. Back in the 1950s, half of the city’s revenue came from Hazel Park Raceway, but due to the statewide decline of the racing industry, the track now only provides 2 percent of the city’s general fund.

In the 1960s, much of the city’s tax base was lost with the addition of I-75. In the 1980s, a number of federal revenue-sharing programs were eliminated, and the first signs of blight and urban decay began to appear in the community. And in the 2000s, the housing bubble expanded and burst, which was especially devastating for fully built-out inner-ring suburban communities like Hazel Park, which Klobucher calls “ground zero for the negative effects of the foreclosure crisis.”

The other part of the problem is what Klobucher describes as “Michigan’s broken system of municipal finance” — the combination of two state policies, the Headlee Amendment and Proposal A, which together ensure that the city can only get 5 percent or the rate of inflation, whichever is less, from its existing tax base. In other words, the city takes 100 percent of the loss when property values go down, but can only recoup a fraction of the increase when they go up.

In addition, state spending on local units of government has dropped by more than 10 percent since 2002. Hazel Park has seen its state-shared revenues drop by one-third, costing the city more than $1 million.

In regard to the 2011 millage, just one year after voters passed it, the city raised $162,000 less than before the millage had passed, because property values had not yet stabilized and continued to fall. That being said, the special assessment still proved essential, since without it, police and fire would’ve been severely gutted, Klobucher said at a town hall meeting last month.

The taxable value per capita in Hazel Park is roughly $10,220 — higher than Hamtramck, but less than other tri-county-area communities such as Royal Oak Township, Highland Park, Eastpointe, Inkster, Pontiac and Detroit.

The key difference is that, with the exception of Hazel Park and Eastpointe, all of those other cities are either under emergency financial management, a consent agreement with the state, or have entered bankruptcy.

To stay free of state control, Hazel Park and Eastpointe need to generate new revenue to maintain core services, which is where SMORSA enters the picture.


The decision
The individual departments are already run as efficiently as possible, Klobucher said. When he first became city manager in 2002, he eliminated 50 percent of the DPS workforce to balance the budget.

The DPS now uses a number of part-time workers. The Police Department does likewise and continues to produce record-low crime rates, thanks in part to the support of residents who call in suspicious activity.

In the Fire Department, three firefighters are currently paid for with grants. The city purchased a used ambulance and Jaws of Life to supplement their life-saving equipment. Every decision is made with cost in mind, but officials say they can’t cut their way out of the current situation. New money has to be made.

On Feb. 24, voters will decide whether SMORSA is the way forward. If it fails, Klobucher said he’ll have to come back with something else in May. But Story said they’re out of options.

“It’s a giant windfall if this millage doesn’t work out,” Story said. “If our manpower keeps going down, it just adds to everyone’s problems. The city’s insurance rating will change, which will lower your property value and raise your own insurance costs. So for the 38 cents a day it averages for our residents to pay the millage … it’s a no-brainer. Do you want your loved ones living in a community where a private ambulance shows up 15 minutes later, or in a community where we show up right away? Same with a fire.

“Right now, we’re making ends meet. One of out every 30 calls, we can’t respond, due to multiple runs — if we get three calls within a minute of each other, we make a judgment call,” he said. “For example, if we get two calls, and one is chest pain and the other is someone who has fallen and can’t get up, we’ll respond to the chest pain first. But despite the fact we’re shoestring tight, we’re still making it work.

“Just remember, SMORSA isn’t the gold pot at the end of the rainbow,” Story said. “It will just allow us to function for the next 20 years. We’re not getting new toys. This just gets us back on track.”

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