By David Fleet
Groveland Twp.- On Wednesday night at a special township meeting the board of trustees voted 5-0 to OK a plan to advert a fire department funding shortfall and keep the department run by the township.
In December, the township board of trustees examined the structure of the fire department, the long term financial sustainability and the short/long term needs. At issue was finding a plan for the township fire department financial projected shortfalls. Township officials say that over the last 10 to 15 years, that given a fire department budget of $1.2 million about $26,000 per year is left over after expenses. The funds are not enough to buy and replace costly fire department equipment.
“We have been looking for the past two years at the fire department operation,” said Bob DePalma, township supervisor.
“We have an interest in exploring solutions and we want to talk about those issues and make sure we understand before we move forward.”
Last December the township board of trustees OK’d that DePalma discuss with the North Oakland County Fire Authority and consider joining.
NOCFA was formed in 1984 and covers Holly and Rose townships. In 2008, NOCFA was organized under Public Act 57-1988, Emergency Services to Municipalities, it allow the fire authority to become its own entity to provide fire service. Each municipality provides two elected officials for the fire board with one citizen at large.
Prior to the vote a fire department study was presented regarding the fire department operation. The results of the study prompted three options for the township: the NOCFA merger consideration or a proposal by Kevin Mason, township fire chief or a significant millage increase.
On Wednesday, the board decided that rather than joining NOCFA, to move forward with a plan Mason offered that would maintain the fire department where it is now with two firefighters at Fire Station one (Dixie Highway) and two at Fire Station two (Grange Hall Road) until 2021. At that time the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response or SAFER grant will expire. The grant was created to provide funding directly to fire departments to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, “front line” firefighters available in their communities. When the grant funds are gone, staffing would then revert back to the 2003 fire department personnel numbers of one person at township Fire Station One (Dixie Highway) and two at station two (Grange Hall Road). The paid on call firefighters would then back fill the station or report to a call, fire or accident when necessary. The plan also included a raise of $4 per hour for on call firefighters, equal to other area fire departments. In addition, the township fire department funding of 3.5 mills will remain the same.
“With the reduction of one person it puts the department $50,000 left over, what we need each year to put into the capital outlay reserve to buy new equipment,” said Mason. “I would then have the flexibility when we need more people we could do that, not just everyday. Without raising the millage we could cover that.”
We’ve cut back on a lot of items for the fire department, he added.
“Every year we put significant money in the capital outlay reserve,” he said. “We need to put this behind us, so we can build up moral again.”
Another option was to merge with NOCFA.
Following the meeting with NOCFA, DePalma said there some items with NOCFA that are some cost savings for the township.. The yearly fee to join NOCFA would be $752,000 per year. In comparison, the funding for the township is about $836,108.
“But given the new proposal from Chief Mason we are down to about $50,000 (savings per year),” he said. “I don’t think that’s a significant about of money at this stage.”
“And it’s true we are not outsourcing (the fire department) rather we would be a one-third equal partner and if we stay Groveland Township Fire Department we are in sole control of the department,” said DePalma. “I think there’s a confidence level among our residents with our fire department and anytime there’s change people are concerned.”
Several factors were discussed that prompted the consideration of NOCFA, Mason’s plan or even raising taxes. Significant in the discussion was the township population that grew from 2,404 in 1960 to 6,150 in 2000, then dropped to 5,476, in 2010. That 11 percent drop in population cost the township about $400,000 over the past 10 years, said DePalma.
Other considerations included 40 percent of the township is owned by the State of Michigan or Oakland County. The property is not on the local tax rolls, rather compensation comes from state through Payment in Lieu of Taxes which is significantly less. Also, prior to the 2008 Great Recession the township was averaging 32 new homes per year. Now, for the last 10 years an average of 5.3 homes per year are constructed.
In 2013 the fire department responded to 2,247 calls. In 2019 the calls dropped to 950 with the same fire department staff after they no longer responded to the Village of Holly or transport patients. In contrast, in 2006 the township responded to 1,150 calls a 58 percent decline from 2013.