Chief pay, pensions to be finalized

Sunday Times Newspapers

ALLEN PARK – Fire Chief Douglas LaFond likely will be an appointed employee and will receive a pay increase after a special council meeting Tuesday.

LaFond, who was named to the position in March, has been working without a contract for the past 14 months, since he was promoted to interim fire chief from deputy fire chief after former Chief Mark Hogrebe accepted a retirement incentive from the city in June 2010.

Previous fire and police chiefs mostly have used personal service contracts, but the practice recently brought criticism from within the council when it was discovered that the city’s pension ordinance does not recognize personal service contracts.

That discovery requires pension payments for former Police Chief Dean Tamsen, who retired in August, to come out of the general fund instead of the pension fund, City Administrator John Zech said. Tamsen has not received any pension payments yet.

According to a recent Plante & Moran audit, the city’s general fund is losing $350,000 a month.

“The general fund, as we know, is in bad shape,” Zech said. “So it would make sense to amend the pension ordinance to have it recognize personal service contracts.”

City council members voiced support of the proposed amendment, but many expressed concerns that the practice of allowing personal service contracts – which in the past have outlined terms such as retirement age that contradict the city’s pension and other ordinances – must end.

“These personal service contracts have cost the city a lot of money and they’ve created a lot of headaches,” Councilwoman Beverly Kelley said. “I will only vote ‘yes’ on it if that is the last one that will ever be done.”

Instead, LaFond and Deputy Chief David Servetter likely would fall under the stipulations of Michigan Public Act 78, which covers civil service members.

But some councilors had concerns that forgoing personal service contracts in favor of the act, which is reflected in the city’s charter, may hamper future cost-saving moves, as it requires layoffs to be based on seniority, not rank. The city currently is considering merging its fire department with Melvindale’s and preliminary plans call for both departments to share one yet-unamed chief.

“We’re looking at different avenues,” Councilman Kevin Rourke said, “merging, things like that. I don’t want to get to the point where its like ‘You can’t do that, because Act 78 says you can’t do that.’”

Kelley replied that since the act is incorporated into the city’s charter, moves by the past administration, which briefly voted it out of use, were never legal.

“Both attorneys agreed the night we voted 78 back in that it was never gone,” Kelley said. “Whatever the past administration did, it never happened, because you can’t do it under the charter. Act 78 was always in place.”

Pension attorneys will be invited to discuss the matter – and LaFond’s salary – at the next council meeting. He has been earning $81,600, a pay cut of more than $7,000 when he served as deputy chief after negotiating out some benefits in the wake of firefighter layoffs.

Councilors are to vote on raising his pay to $88,000 at the next council meeting. The increase is to be retroactive to March 22, the date he and Sevetter were sworn in. A proposed salary of $83,000 for Servetter, who is also the city’s fire marshall, is also to be discussed.

“It’s not like they haven’t been doing the work,” Zech said. “They have been doing the work, and they haven’t been getting the pay that a chief and a deputy chief would command. They are being paid less than the people they are supervising, and that’s an issue that needs to be dealt with by the city.”