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December 7, 2012

Study to be done on possible fire department merger

TRAVERSE CITY — Talks are heating up between city and township officials over a possible merger of local fire departments.

Supervisors from local townships that comprise the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department agreed to Traverse City's request for a proposal to provide community emergency services, including fire fighting.

A deal with Metro would allow the city to eliminate its fire department in a cost-cutting move. The city has full-time staff, while Metro uses a mixture of full-time, part-time, and on-call staff.

"The more we started to talk about our common interests and strengths, the more it became obvious to the townships there was some benefit in taking on the city," said Mayor Michael Estes. "For the first time I'm optimistic."

Officials in Metro Fire townships — East Bay, Acme, and Garfield — had been wary about taking over city fire chores because of concerns over costs and other unknown issues, said Chuck Korn, Garfield's supervisor.

But Metro fire Chief Pat Parker proposed, and the various supervisors agreed, to conduct a feasibility study funded in part by a state grant.

"Consolidation is being done all over the country right now so there are a lot of experts out there who have seen the good, the bad and the ugly," Parker said. "We would really like to get a third party involved that might see things we might not have thought about."

A study would cost between $60,000 and $85,000; the state would pick up 25 percent of that cost. Metro officials applied for the grant last week.

The state also would help cover consolidation costs, Parker said, including administrative and legal expenses, equipment and facilities.

Township taxpayers pay a dedicated 2.1 mills to fund Metro at about $3.1 million annually, but the city would have to chip in more, possibly the equivalent of about 2.4 mills, or about $1.7 million.

The city fire department's budget is $2.6 million annually and covers 23 full-time firefighters, though that figure does not include their pension costs.

Metro's ranks would expand if it took over city fire services, and Parker estimated his department would have to add three battalion chiefs, three fire inspectors, and about 35 more part-time firefighters, as well as some full-time personnel.

Metro employs 17 full-time personnel and about 65 part-time firefighters.

City firefighters would not be guaranteed a position with Metro and have opposed consolidation.

"Basically, we are just in a waiting game right now to see what is going to happen," said Chad Rueckert, Traverse City Firefighters Association president. "Two of our biggest concerns is the level of service the city will potentially lose and the elimination of a fire department that has been around for 135 years."

Parker said he doesn't want to provide a cost proposal to the city until a feasibility study is completed. Other details include whether to allow the city to immediately join Metro as a full partner, or to initially contract with the city to provide services for a number of years.

Metro leans towards the latter.

City officials prefer immediate membership, and voiced concern that if Metro opts out at the end of a contract the city would be left without a fire department.

But city officials decided against making an initial contract a "deal breaker," city Commissioner Mike Gillman said.

"Any initial proposal will be subject to discussion after it is made," Gillman said. "What we need is an initial proposal from Metro."

Gillman and Estes said they'd prefer Metro officials make a proposal now, prior to the study, but said they would be comfortable working on both matters simultaneously.

Metro officials remain cautious.

"It's a big move for us, and it's one we really want to make sure we are studying and how it affects both organizations," Parker said. "We want to make sure we're careful of how we bring these parts together.

"You only have one chance to do this right," he said.

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