By David Fleet
Groveland Twp.- On Monday night about 100 filled the township hall during the board of trustees meeting to express their concerns regarding possible changes in the township fire department.
Township Supervisor Bob DePalma said that options will be made public later this month regarding the possible changes. The township will send out a survey later in May where residents will have a chance to decide. The data from the survey’s will be compiled. A full analysis of the township fire department proposals will be made available in The Citizen newspaper when they are released.
The information will also be available on the township Website, cable channel 10 and YouTube for residents to watch.
“One of the options for the township will be joining NOCF,” said DePalma. “We first looked if fire departments should be consolidated in the community in 2004, but there was a host of issues that made it not feasible at that time. Those factors have since changed.”
The North Oakland County Fire Authority or NOCF was formed in 1984. The department is located in Holly and has a primary response area of about 69 square miles consisting of Holly and Rose townships. The department includes a population of about 18,000 for both townships. In 2017 they responded to 950 calls, which included mutual aid calls.
Key in the change is the township fire departments finances, said DePalma.
Currently, township residents pay 3.94 mills for fire protection, or $394 each year in taxes for a $200,000 home. The fire funds were also supplemented by medical runs to other communities.
“We looked back over the last 10 to 15 years and with a fire department budget of $1.8 million there’s about $26,000 per year left over,” he said. “When you have to buy firetrucks that cost $300,000 and ambulances at $115,000 you just can’t sustain a fleet on that amount. Our fleet is getting old.”
The township fire department includes five full-time firefighters and 47 part-time. Two tanker trucks, one equipment truck, one brush fire truck, a ladder truck and four life support vehicles.
“We’ve had 14 years of the fire department not generating enough money to take care of it’s own needs,” he said. “It’s an unsustainable program. We’ve asked for multiple plans from the fire department (to resolve the issue) and none were workable. So I sat down with Assistant Fire Chief Kevin Mason and came up with a plan.”
Several in the crowd suggested raising the fire millage and putting the increase to a township vote.
Following a budget meeting in February 2011 the township board voted for a .44 mills tax hike for the fire department. The department had operated on 3.5 mills and can levy up to 5 mills without a vote which was approved by voters in 2000.
“Before you ask for more money we have to determine can we fix what we have?” he said. “You can’t just keep running up the millage. One of the hallmarks of our township is to keep taxes low. Right now our (fire department taxes) are the second highest in the county. I’m really not interested in making Groveland Township the highest in the county.”
The department services about 2,000 households and 70 businesses within the township with a population of about 5,400 residents.
Another factor in the fire department shake-up is a change in leadership.
Late last year, Township Fire Chief Steve McGee announced his retirement after more than 40 years. His last day was moved from September to June 15 prompting the township to step-up the reorganization process.
DePalma said that for the last 10 years the Village of Holly had a contracted with the township for the fire chief’s management contract services and a ambulance services contract. The services had cost the township about $53,000 each year, and the management services cost about $67,000. Holly also covered townships’s 911 services for $35,000.
In January the township told the Holly Fire Department that since McGee is retiring and will become their new fire chief the ambulance service contract is done.
“The contract with Holly is not worth doing on its own (without the management contract),” he said. “They (Holly) did not come back with an answer regarding the service until April. They asked to extend it for three month and I’m not interested in short term extensions. We need a long term solution.”
Another concern was the possible closing of township fire station 1 located at Dixie Highway and Grange Hall Road that could lead to reduced response time. The Michigan State Police Post is also located at the station.
“The state police post is not going away,” said DePalma. “Earlier this month Township Assistant Fire Chief Mason and I had a meeting with the state police about what the facility would be if the building was moved to accommodate them. They did not indicate any intention of leaving, in fact currently staffed higher then ever. They also provided input on the plans.”
Currently, township fire station 1 covers about 15 percent of the area. Township fire station 2, built in 1996 covers 85 percent. The southwest corner of the township is covered by NOFTA.
“Even today NOFTA is covering a portion of Groveland.”