BUSINESS
04/27/2011 07:44 am ET Updated Jun 27, 2011

Municipal Debt: Police, Fire Department Merger Attempts Spark Union Fights

WASHINGTON -- David Micallef never thought he’d be involved in a labor dispute at age 25, much less assuming a lead role in one. But as president of his local fire union, Micallef has been leading his fellow firefighters in a long-running fight with the city of Harper Woods, Mich. Their beef? They say the city is trying to turn them into cops.

“If I wanted to be a police officer, I would have gone to the police academy,” Micallef says.

Next month, residents in this Detroit suburb of 14,000 will head to the polls to vote on a proposal to merge Harper Woods' police and fire departments and start cross-training personnel.

This controversial measure, which proponents say is a necessary cost-saving measure, is now on the table in a number of cash-strapped towns in Michigan and elsewhere. Facing serious budget deficits in the economic downturn, some city leaders are looking to slash an area of the budget that was once considered inviolable: public safety.

For residents faced with these ballot proposals, the question is whether they’re willing to change their traditional notions of police and fire departments and accept a less specialized but more affordable public service.

For firefighters and, to a lesser degree, cops, the stakes seem far greater.

Generally speaking, police officers tend to go along with the proposals, with the idea that they’ll only be fighting fires a small percentage of the time and that the mergers are inevitable. The resistance is much stronger among firefighters, whose jobs could fundamentally change as they spend less time at the stationhouse and more time walking a beat. Many of them talk as if their identity is suddenly nothing more than a discretionary item on the municipal budget.

“We always call it a kind of destiny,” says Mark Docherty, president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, which is pushing back hard against various attempts around the state to move toward so-called “pubic safety departments.”

“I have no interest in being a cop. There are a lot of firefighters who can’t do a cop’s job, and a lot of cops who can’t do a firefighter’s,” he said.

The idea of a police-fire merger is nothing new in Michigan, or in Harper Woods. The Detroit suburb put a similar proposal before voters in 1994 that failed at the ballot box. But other municipalities around the state have been using the public safety model successfully for years.

The Kalamazoo public safety department is considered a national model, having integrated police and fire back in the 1980s. When the southwestern Michigan town's chief, career cop Jeff Hadley, left Indiana to accept the position three years ago, he had to go through fire training like everybody else.

“I have quickly become a fan and a believer in the model,” he says. “Is it perfect? No. But we’re able to get a greater use of our resources, and provide a better public safety service on the whole, than if we had traditional police and fire departments.”

While the Harper Woods police union hasn't opposed the latest merger proposal, the fire union has taken the city to court to stop it. They sued in 2008, when the city started cross-training 16 police officers in the 37-member department who were willing to learn skills as firefighters. They argued that a merger violated the town charter’s stipulation that the police and fire departments be separate, a position the judge agreed with. The town recently lost on appeal, so the May 3 vote would be to change the language of the charter.

'ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY'

Harper Woods Mayor Kenneth Poynter says that the town’s financial outlook is so dire that it now has no choice but to transition. He says that in 2007, near the height of the housing boom, the town had a taxable value of $430 million; that has dwindled to an estimated $280 million this year. In addition to the $1.7 million in property tax revenue that’s disappeared in the housing bust, the city has lost much of the money it once enjoyed from state revenue-sharing.

Moving to a public-safety department could save Harper Woods anywhere from $400,000 to $700,000 annually, says Poynter.

Vivian Sawicki, a councilmember, says the city isn’t targeting firefighters’ jobs so much as their overtime pay.

“Several members of the fire department make well over $100,000 per year due to overtime added to salary,” Sawicki writes in an email. The change “is absolutely necessary based on our current financial stresses.”

Even though the merger has the support of the mayor, the city administrator, the city council, and a good chunk of the citizenry, Poytner describes his camp’s battle with the fire union and the 11-member fire department as “David versus Goliath.”

"Some politicians want to give firefighters guns and cops hoses," begins a statewide TV spot bought by the International Association of Fire Fighters to oppose public safety mergers, which have also been floated in the Michigan towns of Traverse City and Benton Harbor. Even the AFL-CIO -- a national union, which represents both firefighters' and police officers' locals -- has weighed in on the proposed mergers, calling them "hare-brained.”

Leonard Matarese, a research director at the International City/Council Management Association who studies public safety, believes that the long-term benefits of merging police and fire departments are well worth the expected turmoil. Like Hadley, the Kalamazoo chief, Matarese has been fielding more and more inquiries from administrators in the U.S. and abroad looking to trim their budgets through public-safety mergers. In fact, Matarase recently led a delegation of Swedish government officials on a tour of towns in Michigan that use the model.

“Some [municipalities] are just desperate" to remain solvent, Matarese says. "In a lot of communities they’ve laid off everyone but police and fire and they’ve got to look at alternative savings there. Only in an ideal world can you do it through attrition."

The firefighters, he adds, feel threatened for good reason. There are fewer fires today than there were in decades past, thanks in large part to the advancements made in fire prevention. Some towns have compensated for this change by giving firefighters a greater role as paramedics; others, including some in Michigan, have simply merged their fire departments with others in surrounding towns to help cut costs. As for merging police and fire, the “whole concept” is to take the downtime at firehouses and put it towards law enforcement, Matarese says.

“This is not a technical issue,” he says of the logistics needed to make the switch. “It’s a union issue.”

THERE'S 'A BIT OF ANGER OUT THERE'

That certainly seems to be the case in Benton Harbor, Mich., a port city of 10,000 on Lake Michigan near the Indiana border. The city’s financial situation had grown so grim that last year the state intervened and took control of the city budget through an emergency financial manager. The public-safety chief, Roger Lange, has announced his intentions to merge the police and fire departments and asked members to start cross-training.

Lange says there are no legislative hurdles to his plan in Benton Harbor -- only negotiations that must be hashed out with the police and fire unions, both of which are largely opposed to the plans. Six of the city's 18 police officers have taken Lange up on his invitation to start voluntarily training as firefighters. As for the firefighters, "they’re not taking to it at all,” he says.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, the controversial Republican who’s said fiscal responsibility is a top priority, has been a vocal supporter of police and fire mergers, even going so far as to offer municipalities financial incentives for making the switch.

In Harper Woods, the campaigning around the ballot measure has been fierce. The firefighters have mounted a formidable door-knocking campaign. Mayor Poynter accuses the fire union of using "scare tactics” with senior citizens, leading them to believe that under the public-safety model no one will be coming to their houses when there’s an emergency. Likewise, the firefighters accuse their opponents of placing misleading signs around town.

The passion on this issue isn’t relegated to just cops and firefighters and politicians. The yards around town are blanketed with signs urging either “Yes” or “No” on the May 3 ballot. Poynter says “it’s a nice community but right now there’s a bit of anger out there.” Some residents view the switch as a necessary cost-cutting measure, while others fear they’ll be settling for diminished service.

Sue Uhl, who moved to town in 1993, puts herself in the latter camp. Like many of her friends, she’s angry that city leaders tried to make the switch without putting it to a vote and then spent tax dollars litigating with the fire union. “They want to blame it on the downturn of the economy, but the financial situation is not new,” Uhl says. “They’ve known about if for years and they kept spending money. Is it fair for me as a taxpayer to say, ‘OK, you made poor decisions, so now I’ll accept a lesser service?’”

Right now she has a “No” sign in her yard. Her friend up the street has a “Yes” sign. “I’ll still wave to her, and we’ll still be neighbors,” says Uhl. “I just hope the city can pull together.”