SAFER Grant in Question…

SAFER Grants in Question: City Holds Off Re-Hiring Firefighters Until After Bargaining and Budget Processes

(Crystal A. Proxmire, 3/12/2011)

 

With so many variables in the City’s financial future, the Ferndale City Council has decided to delay acceptance of a $851,164 SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant that would allow them to re-hire four laid-off firefighters for a period of two years.  The main issue is that the grant, provided by FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), has a stipulation that once those employees are re-hired, the City may not lay off any firefighters for the next two years.

 

That is a commitment that Council is not yet ready to make.  “With the City’s current financial situation it is difficult to commit to a Federal grant that “Locks You in” with the current uncertainties facing the City, i.e. State revenue sharing.  Therefore the staff is doing more in depth research into exactly what we are saying yes to before the Council accepts the grant,” said Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan.  The Chief explained that if accepted the grant would cover the employees from April 7, 2011 to April 6, 2013.  If the City delays bringing back the laid-off firefighters, they will still be able to accept the grant, but it still expires on the same date.

 

City Manager Mark Wollenwebber said Council has several things to consider before being able to make a well-informed decision on the grant.  First there is the City’s budgeting process, which is a series of meetings where Council decides how to allocate money for the year.  For 2012 the City faces a deficit that could be as high as $2.1 million, due mainly to cuts in funding from the State and declined property tax revenues because of falling home values.

Also, because there are still Police and Fire union contracts under negotiation, it is unclear how much money will be available in the Department to support returned staff.  The Fire contract talks have moved into the binding arbitration phase, where a third party will decide the terms, including pay.  Failed union negotiations, by Michigan law, go into binding arbitration.  This is per Michigan Public Act 312 which requires a third party decision.  The Michigan Municipal League is critical of the Act (their position paper here: http://www.mml.org/advocacy/pa312/).  And the Police Officers Association of Michigan supports them (their position paper here: http://www.poam.net/main/legislative/practical-aspects-pa-312.html).

Another consideration is a Headlee Override on the ballot in May, which means that residents could vote an increase in taxes to help cover the reductions made my falling taxable values.  Even if approved, however, the City still faces shortages.  The Override also affects the budget process because until Council knows if that money will be coming or not, they will have to prepare two budgets – one considering it and another that does not.

Another potential variable is how a merger might affect the grant terms, should the City decide to consolidate with a neighbor, as it has been discussing with Hazel Park.  The City Council will be voting on Monday, March 14, 2011 if they would like to hire a consultant to work out a potential plan for a merger of the two departments.

“The grant process allows us to wait until we have more information,” Wollenwebber said.  “It would be irresponsible to make this kind of a decision without knowing that we can hold up our end of the bargain.”

 

FEMA has awarded SAFER grants to cities across the county, including 13 in Michigan.  Royal Oak and Madison Heights have already accepted their SAFER grants.  Wollenwebber explained that in those communities there is still room for reducing staff because they have employees who are close to retirement age, and whose departure from the department would not put the City in violation of the terms of their grants.  Madison Heights received a smaller grant, which comes with both less money and less of a commitment.  Royal Oak and Madison Heights were able to rehire two employees.  Royal Oak was also able to cancel the scheduled lay-off of eight more personnel, meaning ten firefighters were saved.  Ferndale’s grant calls for four firemen to return to work.  An earlier version of this story reported that Royal Oak’s grant saved two jobs, when in fact with the total was ten if you include those who were able to avoid layoffs.

The four laid-off firefighters from Ferndale are currently waiting in limbo for the Council’s decision.  The Council is waiting in limbo for the voter’s decision, and only time will tell what will happen with the union negotiations.  The waiting is unsettling for everyone involved, including the firefighters who are working with a smaller crew on each shift.

“The grant is not supposed to be used as a negotiation tool,” said Patrick Sheehan, President of Ferndale Firefighters Local 812.  “This whole thing is about operational effectiveness.”  Sheehan said that the Department has been taking on more work and loosing manpower at the same time.

“The Labor Union is ready to do whatever we can to maintain fiscal responsibility and we are going through the negotiation process now so that we can come to an agreement.  But we feel like we have been taking on more and more work, in the interest of fiscal responsibility, and now we are doing it with less people. We protect three cities now – Ferndale, Royal Oak Township and Pleasant Ridge, with fewer guys than before.  Also, we have agreements with Madison Heights and Hazel Park in which we are supposed to automatically respond to fires in their cities and they are to reciprocate but, this does not always happen. Why? Manpower reductions, and this has happened more then once. Were not talking about false alarms. We’re talking about during actual building fires.

Governor [Rick] Snyder wants to make a big deal over consolidations and concessions, but that’s what we’ve been doing all along.  We made good decisions over the years and we are in a better position than a lot of other places and prevent the loss of positions which, has a direct impact on Operational Effectiveness”

The Ferndale Firefighters have been working on an expired contract for over a year.  Last year four employees were laid off and another three retired, including Fire Chief Roger Schmidt.

City leaders have requested concessions from unions in both the Police and Fire Departments.  Other city employees have accepted a 5% pay decrease and other benefits concessions in order to keep the City functioning with the reduced income it is expected to receive.

Union negotiations are kept private for legal reasons, although they have already gotten publicly dramatic, with City Leaders criticizing the unions for not agreeing to concessions and anonymous supporters of the Police and Fire unions handing out fliers and starting online campaigns about Police and Fire funding issues.  Sheehan also added that “The Firefighters Union is just now going to receive information which we need for negotiations. We requested this information from our City almost a year ago.”  Although he said he cannot say specifically what kind of information it was that they requested.

An anonymous flier, placed at the doors of residents throughout the city, urges people to come to the City Council meeting on March 14 to ask City Council why the SAFER Grant has not yet been used.  It directs them to an anonymous Facebook Page on the subject.

 

Councilperson Scott Galloway, was asked why the decision about the SAFER grant was postponed.  “Although there is significant uncertainty in our budget for FYE 2012, it is coming into focus,” he said.  “The firefighters union has not negotiated a contract with the city that allows us to balance our budget.  In fact we are in binding arbitration with them and will have no answer as to their contract until late summer.  Apparently their preference is to reduce the size of the department rather than give concessions that would allow the city to avoid layoffs.   Unless the union acknowledges the reality of the city budget and the Michigan economy, there will be further layoffs in the fire department.

 

“There is no evil plan.  No desire to make our residents less safe.  No hatred for the FD.  Bottom line is that the City has made clear to the union that we need concessions due to dramatically reduced tax revenue and state shared revenue.  The FD doesn’t believe us or simply wants to preserve benefits for more senior members of the department at the expense of job security for younger members of the department and without regard for the safety of the public.  I don’t know which.  Had the union reached a contract with us before the expiration of their last contract we would almost certainly be accepting the SAFER grant.”

 

Galloway explained that the decision is not just economic.  “I have been a strong opponent of recalling a firefighter, giving them the mistaken belief that they will be employed by the city for the medium to long term with the result of them stopping their job search efforts, changing their plans to relocate or have them leave another job only to lay them off again in a matter of weeks when we finalize our budget.”

Council has not turned down the grant, simply postponed their decision on accepting it until they are confident that the budget can support the grant’s stipulations.  On Monday, March 14, 2011 they will vote on hiring a consultant to help plan a merger between the Hazel Park FD and the Ferndale FD.  In the coming weeks they will hold budget meetings, which are all open to the public. May 3, 2011 is the election where voters will decide on the Headlee Override.  Late summer is when union arbitration results are expected.

 

For more information about City Council meetings and other City services or records, go to http://www.ferndale-mi.com.

 

For previous Ferndale 115 News stories on governmental topics, including prior budget coverage, please go to http://oaklandcounty115.com/category/politics/.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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