Fightin’ words to a fireman? “If you have a bunch of firefighters sitting around and you put some in police cars, you now have more police” and can still put out fires.” — MSU crim. justice professor
It’s not often when a mayor and city council accuse their firefighters of lying — and the accused accuse them back.
But that’s the bad blood left after a bitter defeat of a public safety amendment in the small Detroit suburb of Harper Woods.
“Honestly, they used lies, deception and scare tactics,” Mayor Ken Poynter said of the firefighters.
Sounding a milder tone, Harper Woods Firefighters Local 1180 President Nathan Butler said, “You can spin numbers any way you want, and that’s what the city did.”
The two sides went head to head at the ballot box on Nov. 3 and — for the third time in 18 years — the firefighters won, defeating by 108 votes the city’s latest shot at passing a charter amendment that would merge the police and firefighters into a public safety department, in which police officers are trained and equipped to fight fires.
Michigan has the most cities of any state to adopt public safety, mainly because advocates say it saves money while putting more police on patrol. In Harper Woods, the firefighters union battled for two decades to block such a merger, stirring up opposition and filing lawsuits.
This fall, union members claimed in campaign literature and on yard signs that a change to public safety would result in no economic advantage. Their campaign also claimed that it puts public safety at risk and “leads to increased response times.”
In fact, exactly the opposite of each statement is true, judging by the experience of three dozen Michigan cities and according to a new study at Michigan State University.
“If you have a bunch of firefighters sitting around, and you put some of them in police cars, you now have more police on patrol and you’re still able to fight fires,” said Alexander Weiss, an adjunct professor of criminal justice at MSU.
“You have to remember — fires are infrequent now and getting more infrequent” in all but the largest cities, Weiss said. “They’ve been dropping for 30 years” because of better building codes, the widespread use of smoke detectors and a decline in the number of Americans who smoke, he said. The total number of fires — in structures, vehicles and otherwise — dropped by 61% nationwide from 1977 to 2014, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
That means far fewer firefighters are needed, so communities can cross-train police officers to fight fires while keeping them on patrol, Weiss said. Public safety officers typically are paid 10% to 15% more than ordinary police officers because they have more training and more responsibility; the flip side is that “they save you much, much more” by doing multiple jobs and by reducing staff “on the fire side,” Weiss said.
Cities near Detroit that use the public safety concept include all five of the Grosse Pointes as well as Berkley, Beverly Hills, Bloomfield Hills, Farmington, Fraser, Monroe and Oak Park. Outstate, the list includes Albion, Cheboygan, Kalamazoo and Petoskey.
In Oak Park — the first city in Michigan to adopt public safety, in 1954 — officers are “trained three ways: fire, police and EMS,” City Manager Erik Tungate said.
“They carry their fire gear along with them, and their EMS gear, and so as emergencies come up, they are able to be right there on scene. We have some of the quickest response times in the metro area, and the savings are just unbelievable,” Tungate said. Oak Park spends about 40% of its general fund budget on first responders, compared with about 70% for many cities that don’t combine the services, according to Tungate.
“I’m not suggesting that the public safety model would work everywhere, but in our city with about 30,000 people, it has worked very well,” he said.
Most recent to adopt the system in Michigan was Bay City in 2013. The move is projected to save the city of about 35,000 people more than $5 million by the summer of 2017, and it has cut response times to fires almost in half while adding more than a dozen officers to the police force — although 10 firefighters were laid off, according to city documents.
Besides praising public safety mergers within cities, the 31-page MSU study — funded by the U.S. Department of Justice — lauds mergers between communities and outside contractors.
In Oakland County, the shining example is Pontiac. Its police response times plummeted from more than an hour to less than 10 minutes after the city disbanded its police department in 2011 and contracted with the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office. At the same time, costs went down. Likewise, Pontiac’s fire service was outsourced for more savings to the Waterford Regional Fire Department. Both outside entities hired back many of Pontiac’s police officers and firefighters.
Still, making almost any change in police and fire service is likely to excite a chorus of opposition — from employees, their unions, residents and even some elected officials, the MSU experts said. To force change in Pontiac, it took an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder with the power to dissolve union contracts.
In Harper Woods, leaders have no such power. Moreover, they faced a special hurdle on their path toward merging police and fire service: a city charter that requires separate police and fire departments.
“I can see it coming up on the ballot again, but we have to wait two years” under the state law governing city charters, said Harper Woods City Manager Randy Skotarczyk, the city’s former police chief. Had it passed, the city would have saved more than $700,000 a year as firefighters retired and were replaced by public safety officers — the city has promised not to lay off any firefighters, Skotarczyk said.
But city taxpayers already are enjoying savings of $1.8 million a year because Harper Woods created what officials call a hybrid public-safety department. That’s one in which all police officers cross-train to fight fires but no firefighters cross-train to be police officers. Much of the cost of cross-training came from state grants, city officials said. That was thanks to Snyder’s push for local governments to streamline their services, reducing their need for state revenue-sharing money.
Still, the annual budget in Harper Woods is so tight it squeaks in this city of about 14,000 people. Property values dropped 58% in 2007 and might not recover in Skotarczyk’s lifetime, he said. Since the onset of the Great Recession, employees took contract concessions, police ranks are down from 36 to 25, and the staff of firefighters shrank from 12 to 7, Skotarczyk said.
More of the police could disappear when federal grants paying several officers expire in the next few years, unless the city finds new funds to keep them, he said. With its cross-trained police force cruising the streets, Harper Woods doesn’t need more firefighters. It needs more cops.
“We are at the minimum,” Skotarczyk said.
Contact Bill Laitner: email@example.com or 313-223-4485.