It's a familiar northern Michigan issue that is still causing consternation — individuals using or getting some benefit from services provided by a neighboring government at essentially zero charge. In the name of fairness, local governments are getting better at defining who owes what and figuring out how to fairly share costs.
This is an old tune for Traverse City, which for decades saw individuals from across the five-county area use city beaches, the Hickory Hills ski area, the former Con Foster museum and the city library for essentially no cost. Grand Traverse County has for year paid to keep up the Civic Center; fees for out-of-county residents to use the pool and hockey rink never paid the bills.
A lot of that has changed, with fees and other cost-sharing strategies relieving some of the burden, but not all.
Blair Township, which operates a fully staffed, around-the-clock fire station, has found that about 30 percent of its of emergency calls come from outside the township.
About half of those calls come from Green Lake Township residents; the two townships share a border right across the street from Blair's fire hall, and Grand Traverse County's central dispatch sends out fire trucks and ambulances based on geography, the stations' capabilities and the type of call.
To everyone's credit, there's essentially no question of where someone lives when it comes to emergency services, just as area hospitals don't turn away people in need of immediate help from their emergency rooms. But just as hospitals struggle to underwrite emergency room coverage for the uninsured, so do local townships.
Blair, for instance, says it costs township residents about $490,000 a year to maintain the fire station, even though nearly a third of its calls come from outside the township.
The Blair Township board is due to discuss the situation tonight and plans to present a proposal to the Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department board later this month. The Rural Fire board oversees fire departments for neighboring Green Lake, Long Lake and Paradise townships. Paul Biondo, chairman of the Rural Fire board and Green Lake supervisor, said charging for cross-border calls seems reasonable and should go both ways.
Garfield, East Bay, and Acme townships, which make up the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department, have long talked about charging for non-resident calls, which are increasing.
What the county really needs, of course, is a network of countywide fire, emergency medical and police services that everyone pays for and everyone can access equally.
Until that day comes, paying for cross-border services must be the way we do business.