Partnership for township fire services possible
ALPENA — Alpena Township officials plan to reach out to officials in other local municipalities, including Alpena, to gauge other communities’ interest in partnering to provide fire services.
After last year rejecting a proposed contract that would have allowed the Alpena Fire Department to handle firefighting services in Alpena Township, the township Board of Trustees intends to send out a letter to its neighbors to see if there is any chance of working together.
Thus far, no negotiations toward a firefighting contract have taken place.
The move is necessary because the township has limited options on how to properly fund the department after a property tax request failed in August and November, township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe said.
Skibbe said current options for the fire department include contracting with another municipality, continuing to allocate money from the general fund toward the department, or greatly reducing services.
The trustees have been debating for months over the best path forward, but little has been resolved to this point.
“As a board, we need to make a decision, period,” Skibbe said.
Using money from the general fund would reduce other services, such as road repairs and maintenance, while trimming fire services could lead to a downgrade in the department. Skibbe said it is possible the department could become fully dependent on paid-on-call employees if cuts are needed.
In 2021, a deal with the city seemed close, but the deal fell through when the trustees voted four-to-three against the proposed contract.
Instead, the board pursued a new, 3-mill tax that was defeated twice. That tax would have cost the owner of a $100,000 house $150 a year and raised about $1.1 million a year to fund operations and equipment at the Alpena Township Fire Department.
The same divide on the board that ended the deal with the city still remains currently.
“I’m in favor of having a conversation, but not for a contract,” Clerk Michele Palecich said.
Currently, township property owners pay 1.5 mills — about $75 a year for the owner of a $100,000 house — for firefighting operations and will pay that tax through 2027. The township says that, despite that revenue, and several hundred thousands of dollars allocated to the department from the general fund, more funds are needed to adequately staff and operate the department.
The proposed contract with the city would have cost the township $400,000 a year and would be adjusted by 2% up or down, depending on the rate of inflation, with a $475,000-a-year cap on what the township would pay. The contract would have been for five years with an automatic five-year renewal.
The township spent $1.1 million on firefighting operations in the fiscal year that ended in March, according to its latest audit. That included nearly $263,000 from the township general fund.
Township Trustee Russ Rhynard, who voted for the contract with the city, said the township had an opportunity to provide residents a higher quality service.
He said more full-time staff would be stationed at the township’s two fire stations and the township would be able to send more help quickly to a fire. He added the city deal was also more affordable than what the township pays currently to keep fire services in-house.
“To me, the logic in rejecting that, and the fiscal benefits, never made sense to me,” he said. “Any other option, like reworking schedules, is just a reduction of services.”
Trustee Steve Lappan said he still fully supports keeping fire services in-house and finding a way to save the township Fire Department, but also supports exploring a fire authority, through which multiple governments would receive firefighting services overseen by an authority board.
To this point, no potential partners have been contacted, but the letter could indicate the level of interest there is, if there is any.
Lappan admitted the formation of a fire authority would not be a quick fix.
“I would be surprised if we could get that done in two years,” he said.
In 2021, the Alpena Fire Department entered into a six-month contract with the township to man and operate the township’s north side station to help the township overcome a staffing shortage, but the deal was allowed to expire and a proposed 15-year contract for full operations was later voted down.
Whichever direction the trustees choose to take for the fire department, it will have to be done soon, as the township is just ramping up its budget process.
Before it can plan for revenues and expenses for the fire department, a plan needs to be established and then executed.
Skibbe said that, until the cost to operate the fire department is known, it’s hard to budget accordingly. He said if large amounts of money are needed from the general fund, it will impact all other aspects of the township.
“It will impact every department and their staffing,” he said.
Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpenanews.com.