The Plymouth Township fire department lost six full-time positions to layoffs at a special township board meeting Thursday, and union officials say politics and personal vendettas are to blame.
The department's full-time staff will be reduced to 15 — down from 21 — as the township looked to erase a $1 million shortfall caused by the City of Plymouth leaving its joint fire agreement with the township Jan. 1 to pursue a new agreement with Northville.
Greg Mangan, treasurer of the township firefighters' union, said the cuts were "a political move made by politicians" as a response to board members failing to receive support from firefighters during the 2008 election. Mangan said the firefighters threw their support behind Dianne Gonzalez, who until this year was a Plymouth-Canton school board member, instead of eventual winner Supervisor Richard Reaume.
The special meeting took place less than 48 hours after a special assessment ballot proposal that would help offset costs of running a full department failed in Tuesday's election.
Lake Pointe station loses fire staffing
The cuts took effect shortly after a special meeting, with fire personnel leaving Station No. 2, also known as the department's Lake Pointe station. According to Dan Atkins, president of the firefighters' union, one firefighter who was subject to the layoffs was sent home. Atkins said the move, which Reaume said "browns out" the station, effectively eliminates its purpose as a fire station.
Reaume said fire personnel would staff stations at Haggerty and Beck roads, while a Huron Valley Ambulance would remain stationed at the Lake Pointe facility on Wilcox Road for emergency transports.
Reaume said the Lake Pointe area has several senior and assisted living facilities in its proximity, and the emergency services would be needed, but that the area has the least amount of fire runs.
Another scenario Reaume proposed was having two firefighters at the Haggerty and Beck stations and one firefighter at the Wilcox station, or rotating the "browned-out" stations according to peak run times. Township firefighters work 24-hour shifts an alternating days.
Mangan said the proposals are "horrible ideas." He said two firefighters alone cannot operate a truck.
Reaume said the smaller full-time staff would be augmented by paid on-call firefighters within a 15-mile radius and mutual aid in Northville Township, the City of Northville, Livonia and Canton, including help from the City of Northville's new station in downtown Plymouth, which opened Jan. 1. Ambulance runs would be conducted by Huron Valley Ambulance, which he said operates from its Eastern Operations facility at Sheldon and Goldsmith roads in Plymouth.
Board members' ties with Huron Valley Ambulance also came into question during public comment. Treasurer Ron Edwards admitted that he received campaign donations from Huron Valley Ambulance representatives, but said he also received donations from firefighters.
Pat Conely, the firefighters union's secretary, said Edwards hasn't received donations from firefighters since 2004.
Firefighters had braced for cuts
Mangan said that while the cuts hurt, the department has braced for layoffs ever since the township passed a budget that included a 23 percent cut to the department, decreasing its operating costs from about $4 million to around $3 million.
"It wasn't unexpected," he said, "But I was heartened that one member voted against (the cuts)."
The board voted 6-1 to approve the layoffs. Clerk Joe Bridgman cast the lone dissenting vote.
"I voted no because I didn't agree with the model the supervisor has proposed," Bridgman said after the meeting. "I want to see Plymouth Township firefighters respond and I want to see Plymouth Township EMS. I want to see our tax dollars at work."
Bridgman said when Huron Valley Ambulance responds to a call, residents and their insurance companies will be billed for the run, while Plymouth Township firefighters' EMS runs are covered with tax dollars.
Newest firefighters subject to layoffs
Reaume said that under Section 38.514 of State Act 78, firefighters with the lowest seniority are the first to be laid off, but that if the department is able to hire in the future, those firefighters would be recalled.
Reaume cited "economic conditions," per Act 78's criterion for layoffs, as the official reason for reducing the department's staff.
Tempers flare during public comment
Thursday's meeting, which was scheduled just one day prior, drew at least 100 residents, and some spoke passionately in favor of keeping the department intact.
Susan Bondie of Plymouth Township drew sharp criticism from Reaume, however, when she said it likely would take a fatality for township officials to change their minds on the cuts, and she "hopes and prays" it happens to a board member.
Reaume said the board has expressed civility toward citizens and said it would expect civility in return.
Atkins, who spoke before and after the board vote, said concessions proposed by the firefighters union have been disregarded by the board.
"Anger is making a lot of these decisions," he said. "The plan you guys have is a disservice to this community and I hope people remember it."
Resident supports cuts
While the public's comments all favored keeping the fire department intact, resident Paul Garon applauded the cuts after the meeting.
"I don't feel our service level is going to decrease," he said, citing the availability of paid on-call and mutual aid firefighters in the area.
Garon said many special assessments, such as what had been proposed to sustain fire services in the township, aren't used for their intended purposes. He said special assessments typically are used for roads or drain tiles for sections of townships, not for entire municipalities to sustain services such as fire staffing.
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