Another Michigan City Considering Hybrid police and fire department

The city of Ypsilanti is projecting it will save $2.1 million over the next five years with the creation of a hybrid police and fire department, which City Manager Ralph Lange said is a necessity in order to remain solvent.

Documents sent to the Michigan Department of Treasury show the city will hire eight new public safety officers over the next three years and 13 existing officers will be trained in firefighting duties through 2016.

The city of Ypsilanti has applied to receive $943,480 through the Competitive Grant Assistance Program from the state of Michigan. If received, the funds will go toward the creation of the hybrid department.

“I think the position is we’re going with the hybrid public safety,” Lange said. “That’s where we’re going. It’s not just about police and fire. For the city to be successful, I have to work with council to make sure the city is literally one integrated unit.”

Separate from the possible grant, the city is set to receive $903,474 through the state’s Economic Vitality Incentive Program. Of that number, $301,158 is for the city’s consolidation efforts.

From 1977 to 2014, the documents show the city has saved close to $21 million through various consolidation and collaboration efforts.

“Given the economic circumstances in the state, all local governments are driven to find ways to save money, just to stay solvent,” Lange said. “It’s something that I’ve done my whole career and it was part of the five-year recovery plan that was backed up by the SEMCOG management review. It’s just a necessity when you have less revenue for the general fund.”

In February, the city sent compliance forms to the Michigan Department of Treasury for the EVIP program, outlining its consolidation efforts.

The documents state the city will spend approximately $738,480 over the next four years to train new and existing officers. The city believes it will find about $210,315 in short-term savings in one year or less and save $2,103,153 over the next five years.

“The goal is to obtain a more efficient workforce by ultimately placing more police officers on patrol and increasing the city’s ability to provide adequate staffing levels to meet fire and medical emergencies,” Lange wrote to the treasury.

Lange said the beginning of combining the two departments will be to consolidate the police and fire administration under one team and one director.

“The value of that is significant,” Lange said. “That can’t happen until we pick a new fire chief and that is moving along.”

Lange said he will likely select the new fire chief by the end of March, but declined to say who the finalists are or how far the pool of applicants have been narrowed down.

Lange previously told AnnArbor.com that Police Chief Amy Walker is a likely candidate to head the entire hybrid department.

Lange is also in the middle of collective bargaining with the various unions within the fire and police departments. Lange said the Police Officers Association of Michigan contract negotiations are moving along well, but the fire negotiations are moving “very slowly.”

“I would feel very confident that before the end of the year, we’ll have some measure of public safety,” Lange said. “For this to really work efficiently, the POAM needs to get settled and the deputy police chief was a key component and the other is picking fire chief.”

Lange said the city will work with the Command Officers Association of Michigan to revisit their contract and “deal with a few things.”

“It’s very important for the COAM and the POAM to mesh together,” Lange said. “I believe all of that is possible, but the final thing would be when does the fire contract get settled and I’m not willing to make any comment on that.”

When asked whether the city can move forward with the hybrid department without settling the fire contract, Lange said the administration portion of the model could be completed.

“Can we do the PSO officers? That’s a matter of debate and a legal question not resolved,” Lange said.

In the documents sent to the state treasury, the city wrote that another potential consolidation could have been a potential fire authority between the city, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti Township and Pittsfield Township.

According to the documents, the municipalities met four times last year to talk about ways to forge a collaboration that could have potentially led to a regional fire department.

“If we just gave the fire department away, it would not be the same,” Lange said.

Fire Department Union President Ken Hobbs said he and other Ypsilanti firefighters are still in support of the authority. Retired Ypsilanti fire Chief Jon Ichesco heavily pushed for regionalization.

“In our mind, it would have been the perfect time,” Hobbs said. “… We’re not in support of a plan that’s going to eliminate us.”

The city has effectively “put on hold” the fire authority as it explores the hybrid department, but if it is determined the model isn’t feasible, Ypsilanti will return to the possibility of creating an authority. The authority would save the city $689,808.

However, the city outlined in the documents that a fire authority will require an agreement between policy makers, labor unions and administration.

“Members of the proposed authority continue to fail to successfully navigate these three issues,” Lange wrote.

Hobbs said the nearly $1 million grant is not a sure thing yet for the hybrid model and believes the city shouldn’t depend on it as a source to cover the costs.

“We always apply for a SAFER grant and say, ‘you can’t count this money until you receive it,'” Hobbs said. “Right now it’s just a request, so basing everything on a request, how do you come up with the $33,000 per officer to cross train them to do fire work? If you don’t get the grant, what’s your plan after that?”

According to Lange, the model will allow the city to provide the necessary level of public safety at a cost that will not severely hamper the city’s budget.

“While not ideal, it is the best solution given the city’s public safety needs and financial capabilities,” Lange wrote.

Lange said the city will continue to look at other ways to consolidate in different areas to save more money and become more efficient.

“We’re here not just to balance the budget, but deliver critical and essential services to the citizens,” Lange said. “It’s one thing to save money, but you have to still deliver services and we have to have the best use of employees.”

Whether it’s internal or external consolidation efforts, the city is looking at multiple possibilities.

“We are going to continually do this and my emphasis as long as we work with council will be internal consolidation that really allows service to be delivered at same or reduced cost,” Lange said. “There’s still a lot that can be done on that and we’re going to work really hard to accomplish all of these things. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to do these things.”

From The Ypsilanti Reporter