Debating fire consolidation in the west
The fate of the fire service in western Washtenaw County will likely be decided on March 20. That's the day Webster Township's board votes on a proposal to merge two of the west's fire services, the Dexter Area Fire Department and the Scio Township Fire Department. How they'll vote is anyone's guess.
"I don't know if it'll pass or fail," says John Kingsley, Webster's supervisor. "But I know if we voted on it in January, it would have been six to one against, and I would've been the only one for it." Kingsley was for it because he's convinced that the merger will save the rural township's residents money while improving fire response times. The rest of his board wasn't so sure--and if they aren't convinced by the 20th, the merger won't happen.
Along with Dexter village and Dexter Township and part of Lima Township, Webster is currently served by the Dexter Area Fire Department. So was Scio Township--until it chose to form its own department in 1986.
"I was around when Scio split off," says Harley Rider, Dexter Township clerk. "They thought they could do it better alone. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to me then, and it doesn't now, when they've got a station right across the street from one of ours."
But times change, and so do township boards. For the last two years, Scio has been in talks to consolidate fire services with the Dexter department.
Scio supervisor Spaulding Clark, like the other township and village supervisors, stresses there's nothing wrong with their present fire department. "But by consolidating we'll get better service," says Clark. "Right now, if Scio Township goes out, that leaves the station empty, and if something else happens, we've got nobody, and we end up calling for mutual aid. With four communities, we'll have central operation, and if there's an emergency we'll be better served.
"And we hope to be able to some extent reduce costs. For example, everybody wants a
tower truck, but that's a whopping big expense."
"There's no reason why we'd need two tower trucks," Kingsley agrees. "We don't have a whole lot of tall buildings in the west, and we won't need two of something that costs $800,000 each." He sees the potential for other savings, too, "because we'll have one chief and one set of books. But the biggest single thing we're looking for is backup."
That they would have: a combined department would field sixty-four firefighters, eleven full-time and fifty-three more paid on call, staffing fifteen service vehicles at four stations. The plan doesn't specify any immediate changes to the stations, but "Dexter village is looking at their Fire Station Number One," says Rider. "It's an old station and barely adequate for the equipment. And the Dexter Township substation is temporary, and I don't know if we'll maintain it or build a new one."
"Webster has had a long-term plan to build a twenty-four/seven station next to the township hall," adds Kingsley. "Our slow population increase meant it hasn't been needed, but if the economy ever picks up we may go ahead."
Along with merging staffs, the proposed new department would also revamp the way participating communities pay for fire service. Currently, Scio spends about $1 million a year, most of it paid for by a dedicated fire millage. The Dexter department has a budget of $1.265 million, and "all municipalities pay a percentage based on their number of runs," says Dexter village council president Sean Keough.
"That's an antiquated model," Keough says. "A more fair price structure should be based on the size of the population who you're protecting and the SEV [state equalized value] of what you're protecting, plus the number of runs." That's how the new, consolidated department would figure out who pays what.
"We won't really know the real cost until we have it up and operating and the budget gets stabilized," Kingsley acknowledges. But for Dexter village, says Keough, "it's projected the cost for service will go down slightly because there's a higher population and more property to protect outside of the village than in." Rider believes the impact on Dexter Township will be minimal, while Clark says Scio's cost may be "moderately more" if they consolidate.
Scio's board has already voted in favor of consolidation, and Dexter village is likely to approve it. In Dexter Township, Rider says of his own board, "There're strong opinions on both sides, but the majority is open-minded about seeing what's the best bang for the buck and what's the best for the citizens." But Webster's trustees balked at their January meeting. "They don't necessarily think bigger is better," Kinglsey said afterwards, "and they need to see clear advantages in cost savings and response times." Kingsley believes consolidation will deliver those advantages; whether or not his colleagues agree will likely determine the fate of the consolidation plan.
What about the name? "That is the single biggest sticking point," says Rider. "There's so much pride of ownership. It's always been the Dexter Area Fire Department even before Scio split off ... Some people in Dexter say, hey, we've got the larger department, and you guys asked to come in with us, so you should take our name."
Scio's Clark doesn't see it that way. "I don't think any of us have a strong feeling for what it ought to be called--except it won't be called either the Scio or the Dexter fire department. Both fire departments feel allegiance to their names, but it needs a new name because it's a new beginning."
"There's a lot of pride in the old names," says Keough. "But all the supervisors agree we need something everybody can be part of. The heritage is still there, but we need a new start."
When asked about the name, Kingsley laughed long and loud. "Believe it or not, that's one of the hardest problems. To me, the name isn't important. What's important is that when they make a phone call, a truck shows up at their house." But Kingsley isn't suggesting calling it the Webster Regional Fire Department, either.
If the consolidation goes through, Kingsley says "the new structure can be put in place in a matter of weeks or months. The first job is to put together a new fire board, then hire a new fire chief. The current chiefs would be made deputy chiefs and report directly to the fire board, and the fire board would continue to run two separate departments until the new fire chief is hired, and the two current chiefs can apply for the job."
The provisional name for the joint service, Washtenaw Fire and Rescue, is broad enough to allow other communities to join in the future. While some Dexter firefighters claim changing the names would cost up to six figures, Kingsley says "we haven't even gotten an estimate yet. And I think they're counting on all new uniforms and repainting the trucks, and all that doesn't need to happen right away.
"It doesn't make any difference what the name on the truck is just so long as it's where it needs to be when it needs to be there."
[Originally published in June, 2012.]