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Police and fire officials propose restructuring amid slashed budget

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published September 30, 2019

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BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP — The Police and Fire departments shared their plans with the Board of Trustees Sept. 23 on how they could restructure their operations to accommodate a slashed budget.

The shake-up comes following the Aug. 6 election, when voters rejected a special assessment district proposal that would have beefed up township coffers and kept services at their existing levels. The township needs to budget for an around $5 million annual shortfall in the face of growing post-employment benefit obligation costs.

The tax was promoted as a public safety SAD because, in order to close the funding gap, major cuts would need to be made across the board, officials said. So far, the animal welfare division has been scrapped, along with the annual township open house, household hazardous waste disposal and document shredding programs.  

To further save money, the township instituted a hiring freeze last year that kept 14 jobs vacant, including some police officers and firefighter positions. Further cuts are expected to be made in the coming years through attrition.

“We have not cut anybody. We are just restructuring the Police Department and moving some people around,” Bloomfield Township Police Chief Phil Langmeyer said to the board last week.

He explained that 10 years ago, the Police Department was fully staffed with 70 sworn officers and 24 non-sworn, or civilian, employees. As of last week, there were 63 officers and 18 non-sworn staff members.  

That puts the department a bit lower than the national average of 2.17 officers per 1,000 residents in a municipality, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Bloomfield Township currently has 1.54 officers per 1,000 residents.

“Folks, we’ve never been below average, but we are now,” Langmeyer told the board.

He went on to explain that the department needs to have a minimum of five officers on the road at all times, as two to three officers are needed to respond to each call, leaving two officers to handle additional calls for the 26-square-mile township.

“And that’s assuming one of those (remaining two) officers hasn’t been assigned to dispatch, because we are down a dispatcher,” Langmeyer continued, noting that the result will likely be slightly higher response times for emergency calls.

To make sure enough officers are available to answer calls, the chief proposed moving officers currently staffed in the administrative division and the investigations division over to patrol.

“My recommendation today is that we eliminate our traffic investigations unit (in the administrative division),” he said. “That’s four people: three officers and a sergeant.”

That would likely reduce the amount of revenue brought into the department from traffic tickets, which could be reduced by about 4,000 tickets annually.

The next positions to go would likely be from specialized units in investigations as those officers come up for retirement. That would include the township’s representative with the FBI’s Gang and Violent Crime Task Force, the FBI’s Metro Detroit  Identity Theft Task Force — which allows the department to pursue investigations into cases like ID theft, and phone and email scams, the largest portion of the township’s crime reports — the officer assigned to the regional Special Investigations Unit — essentially used as the township’s surveillance unit — and finally, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office’s Narcotics Enforcement Team officer.

Further impacted could be community engagement programs like neighborhood safety seminars, women’s self-defense workshops, World War II Honor Flights and the Friends in Blue, the township’s senior citizen check-in program.

Trustee David Buckley, as he has before, suggested that the township look further into “shared sacrifice” options to avoid police and fire cuts. He suggested to Langmeyer that pay increases and health benefits could be lowered to save money. The chief responded by saying that police have already made many concessions. Supervisor Leo Savoie noted later in the meeting that police and fire unions agree to compensation and benefits during binding arbitration.

Trustee Neal Barnett thanked Langmeyer for his presentation and said he felt “sickened” about the fact that police cuts are up for discussion.

“Having heard from some members on this board and some in the public that all said (the SAD) was a scare tactic, that we would lose police and fire — it wasn’t a scare tactic. When the money isn’t there, this is what happens,” Barnett said. “And it’s not punitive. If this had been done prior to or instead of an SAD, the same thing would’ve happened. This is the new reality.”

Treasurer Brian Kepes added that none of the cuts should be a surprise to the board or residents, as even before the SAD vote in August, consultants from Plante Moran said that without additional revenue, cuts to public safety would need to be made to fund retiree benefits.

Trustee Michael Schostak agreed.

“You can’t take $3 million out of an $11 million budget. We wouldn’t be able to complete our statutory requirements if we did that,” Schostak said. “I find it kind of surprising that anybody would stand up here and say, ‘We didn’t think it would come from police and fire.’ Because like we said before the vote on the SAD, there’s no other place to take it from. Not to mention three-quarters of the obligation is the result of the legacy costs from the public safety department. It’s not a knock on anyone personally. It’s just the numbers.”

The prognosis for the Fire Department is in similar straits, according to Bloomfield Township Fire Chief Mike Morin. The department is down four firefighters to 60 currently, and he suspects that two firefighters per shift will be cut too. The impacts will be longer response times — which is currently about six minutes — fewer community engagement programs and potentially the elimination of Fire Station 4.

Trustee Dani Walsh asked the fire chief if eliminated paid firefighter positions could be replaced with volunteers.

“This is not a community where you’re going to get a huge turnout,” Morin said. “There’s not a lot of blue collar in this neighborhood, which is where you get a lot of volunteers from.”

He added that volunteers would need to be trained not just in fire safety, but also in emergency medical response, which isn’t an effort that could be implemented in time for the budget cuts to be made.

“Reduced staffing is going to lead to something. I can’t give you numbers for what it’s going to lead to, but it’s going to lead to something,” Morin said. “Some of the risks are to the citizens; some are to the firefighters. … As we move forward, we will certainly give you the best service we can for the money. It’s up to the board to decide what that budget is going to be, but somewhere along the line something is going to disappear, whether it’s your favorite program or (your) neighbor’s favorite program.”

Similar presentations will be made to the board by Department of Public Works staff, Engineering Department staff and others before the next fiscal year budget is built.

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