Millage Need 'Unprecedented' for Fire Department, Chief Says
West Bloomfield Township Fire Department Chief Jay Wiseman said that because less property tax revenue is being collected, votes will directly affect public safety.
The Nov. 8 election is drawing closer every day, but as voters, what do we know about what is really being asked of us?
Patch will interview police and fire chiefs, township officials and tax-paying citizens during the ramp-up to the vote on proposals for a public safety millage renewal — and an increase — to help explain where your money goes and why.
In West Bloomfield, we'll vote on a 10-year renewal of the township’s existing public safety millage at its current rate of 3.1378 mills, and on an 11-year increase of 2.85 mills, in two separate ballot questions.
A mill is equal to $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. The owner of property with a taxable value of $100,000 (about $200,000 market value) currently pays $313.78 annually in property taxes for public safety services and would continue to pay that amount for 10 years if the existing millage is renewed.
If the increase is also approved, the same owner would pay an additional $285 annually for 11 years.
Patch welcomes letters to the editor regarding the public safety millage. Please include your first and last name as well as the city or township in which you reside and write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sprawl and aging population mean more stations, activity
Fire Chief Jay Wiseman said that in order to understand the township's future dependence upon the Fire Department, it's important to understand where the township has been. Sprawl, as well as geography, necessitate keeping six stations operating under the township's budget, as they have since 2003.
"About two years ago, there was a large fire at the apartments on Woodrow Wilson Boulevard," Wiseman said. "The crews from Station No. 9 reported there within about four to five minutes, and the crews from Station 1 weren’t on the scene for another six minutes.
"We would’ve lost the entire building without that three- to six-minute response time," he said. "... We’d have displaced probably 20 apartments."
The stations in which the township operates are part of the township's master plan, designed to allow for a three- to six-minute response time for fire and emergency medical services, as recommended by the Insurance Services Office (ISO) and the National Fire Protection Association.
These response times are not helped by the fact that West Bloomfield encompasses 36 square miles and is home to many lakes, which roads must snake around.
"It's not like we're a tiny community," Wiseman said.
Census data collected by the The New York Times indicates that locations where fire stations are placed are largely areas of growing population.
For example, West Bloomfield Township's Station No. 2 is located near the intersection of Maple and Halsted roads, an area where census figures show that population has grown by 39.9 percent from 2000 to 2010. According to the Fire Department's second-quarter report, Station No. 2 was the township's busiest station from April-June.
The Fire Department's last annual review indicates that incidents have gone up to 6,593 in 2010 from 4,214 in 2000. Wiseman added that incidents generally have increased by 4 percent to 7 percent annually during the course of that period and continue to grow this year.
He attributes that in part to the growing age of the population. Census data indicate that West Bloomfield's 65-and-older population increased to 11,275 in 2010 from 8,674 in 2000. Wiseman said the department has increased its involvement in the senior community by hosting summits regarding fire prevention, but he said that responding to concerns coming from senior living centers continues to prove vital.
"We have, every single day, an automatic fire alarm tripped in one of our senior complexes, and people will say those are false alarms — but they’re not. They’re usually a small incident which could’ve turned into a fire, but the staff are quick to respond," he said.
Wiseman added that in times of economic crisis, communities are more suspectible to arson and that West Bloomfield has proven to be no exception. WBFD reported to eight cases of arson in 2010.
Reduced staffing has helped, but at what cost?
It’s estimated that the renewed millage would collect as much as $9.94 million in its first year to help fund the West Bloomfield Police and Fire departments, while the proposed increase would net $9.01 million.
Early estimates from the proposed 2012 budget indicate that the Fire Department requested about $14.86 million in appropriations for the upcoming year.
Wiseman said that given the placement of the stations, 24 daily staffers are needed in order to adequately deal with one building fire and two medical emergencies happening at the same time.
He pointed out that although those events happening simultaneously occurs with regularity, the Fire Department has worked with 22 staffers regularly since this past summer.
"We're ending up with multiple occurrences where you have to dispatch multiple stations (to a single incident)," he said. "Now, on a medical emergency, I have to send two stations instead of one."
Wiseman said the Fire Department already seeks the most cost-efficient way to operate; if the millages don't pass, it will continue to seek cost-cutting measures.
"That funding amounts to about 20 percent of our (public safety fund) budget," Wiseman said. "If we don’t get that, 20 percent of our services wouldn’t be funded.
"Stations, equipment, personnel — which would (be cut), when would it happen?" he said. "Those are the unknowns. Could we seek early retirements? ... What’s the most efficient way of doing that?
"We know that the situation that we're in is unprecedented," Wiseman said. "This township has passed two other public safety millage increases in order to grow the Fire Department, and now we need an increase to maintain service."
Fire Department improvements cut costs
Wiseman said the department acted as soon as it could when taxable values on property began to fall earlier this decade in order to efficiently cut costs from operations, while simultaneously improving service.
"We’ve reduced our staffing by 12 positions over the past five years," he said. "We've eliminated and consolidated positions within the department. We redistributed and restructured our entire workload through the department. We’ve privatized our mechanics and cut down on overtime by about 61 percent in the process."
Despite these and other initiatives taken — including laying the foundation for a national supply consortium, refurbishing vehicles and apparatuses and taking cuts in contract talks — the Fire Department improved its ISO rating from 5 to 4 in 2007. Wiseman said the difference between an original ISO rating of 9 (10 being the lowest) and 4 equates to property tax savings for homeowners of $1.2 million annually.
Wiseman added that the improvements will continue — he hopes that the township will reach a 3 ISO rating next year.
What else will happen in the future? Wiseman expects a greater dependency upon shared service agreements, including its current operations in Keego Harbor, Sylvan Lake and Orchard Lake at Station No. 9, and the OAKWAY shared services agreement between fire governments in nine communities including West Bloomfield to share resources and training reservations.
"Over time, does it make sense that you start looking at combining, say, for example, dispatch centers?" Wiseman said. "The answers are yes. I support sharing services whenever possible, but that’s a transition that’s going to take some time to put together."