By Vanessa McCray
---- — TRAVERSE CITY-- City commissioners will consider asking Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department to provide the city's fire services.
City Manager Ben Bifoss recommended Traverse City seek a proposal to join the emergency services authority that provides fire services to Acme, East Bay and Garfield townships. Commissioners will consider the issue at a meeting Monday at 7 p.m. in the Governmental Center.
Bifoss called the city's fire department operation "not sustainable."
Debate over the fire department heated up this spring, as commissioners hashed out details of its $13.7 million general fund budget for 2012-13. It anticipates a $555,525 shortfall.
Some commissioners viewed the fire department's $2.6 million in expenses, not including pension costs, as one place to find savings. Commissioners cut funding for an administrative assistant in the fire department.
The city needs to explore the Metro concept because fire services are a "pressing financial issue," Mayor Michael Estes said.
"This is an issue that I have requested for a long time, but we said let's review all the alternatives," he said. "The whole idea is to try to live within our budget."
Estes wants a plan to maintain both city fire stations and save several hundred thousand dollars. Teaming up with the metro department would create efficiencies promoted by regional planning efforts and Michigan's governor, he said.
Bifoss said city officials tried to reduce the fire department's expenses, but the firefighters' union rejected a proposal that included staffing cuts through attrition and the use of part-time firefighters. Firefighters countered with a plan to generate more revenue, in part by providing primary ambulance transport services.
"We can't provide a service and cut staffing," said firefighter and union Vice President Chad Rueckert. "We are not interested in reducing staffing anymore."
But the union's proposal "does not address the service delivery model and continues to rely exclusively on full-time and full-paid personnel," Bifoss wrote to commissioners in a Thursday memo.
A service pact with Metro would require a public vote depending on how it's set up, Bifoss said. November would be the soonest an election could be held. It would be Metro fire's decision to hire back any laid off city firefighters, he said.
"It's a bid to take over city services. It's not a merger," Rueckert said. "They're trying to seek a cheaper fire department."
Garfield Supervisor Chuck Korn, who serves on the Metro authority board, said there's no obvious reason the city couldn't join the townships.
"The timing seems right, but there has to be that will within the city itself," Korn said.
Commissioner Jim Carruthers said the city should conduct a study of its fire department and staffing levels, similar to a previous police personnel analysis, before taking "such a drastic step."
"I'd rather see something that tells me that we should do this or not," he said.