The Traverse City Commission's recent 6-1 decision to look into the possibility of providing fire services through Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department was absolutely the right thing to do. Commissioners owe it to city taxpayers to consider the best — and most cost-effective — ways to provide fire and emergency services to city residents.
Overseeing how the city does business and what it pays to provide services to taxpayers is one of the primary responsibilities of an elected official; not doing so would be a dereliction of the job they have been elected to do.
Taxpayers would be understandably upset if the city ran into serious financial problems because the city administration or city commission had failed to recognize financial problems before they arose or failed to prepare for them.
The administration has warned for a couple years that reduced revenues would bring tough times, and now we're there, and it's time to cut. A number of employees have been laid off, and some positions have gone unfilled after an employee retired. Efforts to trim what some consider non-essential services — such as the Hickory Hills ski area or the History Center — have been met with howls from supporters and a scramble by the city to find the money to keep them open.
Now, with the city's financial peril growing, it's time to look at new and innovative ways to provide services at less cost — and the fire department is a prime place to do that.
The fire department costs the city about $2.6 million, not including pension costs. That represents about 19 percent of the city's total $13.7 million general fund budget for 2012-13. That budget anticipates a $555,525 shortfall, and commissioners want to find ways to reduce the deficit before next year's budget talks.
Fire and emergency medical services are a far cry from a ski hill and history center, however. There is simply no denying that providing fire protection is one of the most expensive and critical services the city provides.
The city police department has for some time combined services with Grand Traverse County and both sides have benefitted. The city and county share 911 and dispatching duties, and those arrested in the city are sent to the county jail. City police sometime answer emergency calls outside city limits, and county deputies sometimes answer calls in the city. The aim is to provide the best possible services for the taxpaying public through cooperation and coordination.
Now, the city wants to continue the work of the Citizen's Operational and Financial Analysis Committee, which was formed in 2007 and spent more than two years looking into city operations. Its analysis of the fire department found that it was a first-rate but expensive system. Among the committee's recommendations were to establish a public safety department to combine police and fire operations or reduce fire staff and hire volunteer or part-time employees.
There has also been talk of reducing the number of emergency medical calls the department sends crews to; the overlap in calls with the North Flight ambulance service is significant and is a major part of the department's yearly budget. Even minor adjustments can save dollars.
It must also be understood, however, that looking isn't necessarily doing. The city must find ways to cut costs, and that means taking a look at how it can adjust services, possibly through a combining of departments, to do just that.
Making personal attacks on commissioners or suggesting hidden agendas won't help the city work its way through this issue. Looking for a new way to do business is not a "strong-arm" tactic. It's simply good management of taxpayer dollars.
The decision won't come soon, and will include numerous steps, possibly including a public vote.
But the process must be undertaken.