After years of speculation and conjecture, Traverse City and the townships that make up the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department have agreed to stop the guessing and bring in professionals to outline the costs and benefits of a possible merger of their respective fire departments.
This is how the often-emotional rhetoric that has driven merger conversations so far will finally be tested and the numbers that will drive any future talks will be created. A professional study that will outline the possible benefits or shortcomings of a merger is an absolute must; serious discussions can't begin until there are numbers and assumptions everyone agrees on, or at least agrees to use as a starting point.
How many firefighters would a combined department need? How many buildings? How many full-time and part-time firefighters? How would emergency medical services be delivered and by whom? How many pieces of equipment would be necessary and where would they be best based? What kind of salary structure would be appropriate?
There are no doubt dozens of other questions and issues to be resolved, and bringing in a professional third party to create the questions and a data base of facts to work from will be key to any success merger talks may have.
And there must be no question about the firm or organization hired to do the study. Whoever is hired must have the credentials and references to stand up to the intense scrutiny they will no doubt face, particularly from Traverse City's unionized firefighters and those who don't want this to devolve into a union, non-union battle. No firm with a history of "union-busting" recommendations or with links to firefighter unions will pass muster here.
As mentioned above, beyond basic fire fighting duties any study must also take a comprehensive look at how emergency medical services are provided and who would do that if a merger takes place. This is a huge issue for Traverse City, which has enjoyed first-rate — but expensive — emergency medical care over the years. City firefighters are also paramedics who carry drugs and medical equipment to provide advanced life support; they can start IVs, open airways, and administer drugs. The city relies on Munson Medical Center's ambulance service, North Flight EMS, to take patients to the hospital.
Metro, which covers East Bay, Acme, and Garfield townships, provides basic life support with emergency medical technicians and relies on North Flight to provide advanced life support.
Figuring out how to combine emergency medical service will no doubt be a sticking point.
Lastly, but perhaps most important, is that both sides will need reliable budget numbers before talks can get serious. After all, this is supposed to be all about saving money for the city, so budget projections will be essential.
And the Metro townships have no intention of underwriting city fire services.
For a merger to make sense, the city is going to have to see significant savings, and those savings will have to be passed on to taxpayers, not just used to shore up other budgets. Giving up their own fire department is a high price for taxpayers to pay, and they can reasonably expect a substantial return.
Right now, 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.
City commissioner Michael Gillman and Mayor Mike Estes, major movers behind merger talks, said they would like to get a proposal from Metro Fire now.
But Metro chief Pat Parker has wisely said the feasibility study must come first. He said with consolidations so common right now, he expects to be able to find experts who can do the job.
"You only have one chance to do this right," he said.