Officials given more time to iron out fire consolidation details

By GABRIEL GOODWIN
Sunday Times Newspapers

WYANDOTTE — City officials decided to extend consolidation talks with Southgate to find the advantages of combining fire departments Monday.

The council gave Fire Chief Jeffrey Carley and City Administrator Todd Drysdale another 90 days to discuss the possible consolidation with officials in Southgate and come up with the best possible solutions. Drysdale said the information he presented to the council is only based on first 90-day talks and all parties involved would “need more time” to negotiate the possible benefits.

“For us, this consolidation would be more about improving fire service rather than strictly a financial decision,” he said. “Both cities would have built-in boots on the ground, rather than the hope of extra firefighters with mutual aid. Many of the surrounding cities are struggling to meet their needs.”

Drysdale said he is not making a recommendation for the consolidation, and would like the additional time for both cities to explore every option. He said a lot more numbers need to be figured out because no definite answers can been given at this time.

“A lot more analysis and conversation are needed before we could make any decision,” he said. “We would like to put all the minds together to see what will work and what won’t. All parties would need another 60 days, at the least, to get a clearer picture of the situation.”

The next steps, Drysdale said, would be to consider whether a new collective bargaining agreement can be reached between the two cities and their respective fire unions. Some of the issues that still need to be discussed are start times, vacation time, how to consider individuals for promotions, personal leave, holiday pay and shift differential pay.

“Realistically, to complete something the council could vote on could take anywhere from six to nine months,” Carley said. “It may take longer than nine months to implement any agreement made by both cities.”

Three months ago, Carley and Drysdale approached the council and asked for the opportunity to open the line of communication with Southgate about sharing fire services. Neither official said there is an immediate need for either city to consolidate services, but past success proves it could be something the city should consider.

Drysdale said the Downriver Consolidated Dispatch was “a proven example that consolidations could work.” The consolidation has been in effect for about two and a half years, he said, and has saved money for Wyandotte, Southgate and Lincoln Park. He said Wyandotte has saved about $100,000 a year since the inception of the consolidated dispatch, while providing improved efficiency to residents.

The Southeastern Michigan Council of Governments, a regional planning partnership for Southeast Michigan, said Wyandotte could increase revenue by about $1 million, with about 90 percent coming from providing advanced life support and medical transport services in Southgate.

Drysdale said the catch is that the two ambulances, which would cost about $300,000 and would need to be purchased to provide that service after a consolidation.

The state of Michigan said cities have to meet three minimum requirements — transparency, an actual consolidation, and a reduction or modernization of employee compensation — to receive aid for their transition into a consolidation. Drysdale said the consolidation would meet those requirements, but he would like to ensure one city does not benefit “leaps and bounds” over the other city involved.

Most of the council believes the city should not enter into a consolidation right now because the current information shows Southgate would receive “far more benefits from a consolidation than Wyandotte.” Councilman Ted Micuira said there seemed to be a “favorable amount of perks” for the city of Southgate.

“For Wyandotte it appears there is not too much benefit, but a lot more work,” he said. “Every step of this plan so far seems to be a benefit for Southgate and not Wyandotte.”

Councilwoman Sherri Fricke said the idea “is not favorable for the city to move forward with” at this time, but would consider the possibility if presented with the proper information.

Councilman Daniel Galeski opposed the consolidation at the meeting because he said the city “has been consolidated enough” citing the consolidated assessor’s office and the consolidated dispatch.

“We presented a concept for the council to analyze,” Drysdale said. “You asked for a 90-day update and this is that update. Essentially, we are saying, ‘This is what we figured out, we need more time, and we would like 60 more days.’ If you want us to go in a different direction, then advise us to do so and we will.”

Mayor Joseph Peterson took a similar stance, but said it should not be about whether one city is taking advantage of another. He said the final consideration should be about the potential to strengthen the services provided in both cities.

“There is a lot of information that has not come to us,” Peterson said. “If they need more time to figure out the details they need, then let’s give it to them.

“A consolidation might not be in our best interest, but if you don’t sit at the table then you will never find out. So, it is hard to say ‘no’ until you see all of the facts.”

The Fire Department has seen about 2,250 calls, which Carley said equates to almost 300 calls a month and manpower is beginning to become a problem. Although the city receives mutual aid from the Downriver area, Carley said the mutual aid business model “doesn’t make sense” due to consistently having to “backfill” positions.

“Unfortunately, I can’t predict when we’ll have calls or the amount of calls we’ll get during any given day,” he said. “There is no lunch hour rush to throw extra guys at.

“We have good partnerships with surrounding communities, but times are changing. This is an opportunity for us to really evaluate how we are doing business and how we will sustain in the future.”

Fire departments are required to have four firefighters on scene within five minutes, Carley said, and 10 firefighters responding within 10 minutes. He said the city has no problem meeting the first requirement, but “it is hard” for any city in the Downriver area to meet that second requirement.

“Wyandotte does do and has done an excellent job in terms of meeting that first requirement, but all the cities downriver failed to meet that second requirement,” he said. “It is impossible for the city to meet that standard. The only way we would be able to do that, or even get close to that standard, is by combining services.”

The proposed fire consolidation would be considered the “Wy-South Fire District,” and would operate the three stations collectively. The fire district would employ all 54 firefighters and have three administrative positions.

It would operate as a three-platoon system that would have 18 available firefighters in each platoon with a daily minimum of 12 firefighters on duty.

Currently, Southgate has set a daily minimum of 5 firefighters and Wyandotte requires a minimum of 6 firefighters daily, so the blended department Drysdale said would allow for an additional firefighter on duty every day.

“Both cities would like to create an organization to manage the collective resources of the combined fire departments,” he said. “And minimize the impact of emergencies for their residents.”

(Gabriel Goodwin can be reached at ggoodwin@bewickpublications.com.)

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