It would seem that Ralph Lange, our new city manager, has made up his mind that we should merge Ypsilanti’s Police and Fire departments in hopes of further delaying landfall of the category-five fiscal storm gathering on the horizon. He’s admittedly in a tough spot, and I’m sympathetic. He’s trying to radically cut spending, in order to stave off bankruptcy and state takeover, without damaging the fabric of our community to such an extent that we’d begin losing the tax-payig families that we currently have, and scare off businesses and individuals who might otherwise be considering investment here. It’s not an enviable task, and I’m not inclined to attack Lange for weighing the options available to us. I am, however, curious as to whether we’ve sufficiently thought through the ramifications of such a drastic course of action.
Before we go any further, here’s a short recap of where were we are in relation to that perfect storm of economic doom that I noted above… Ypsilanti is currently being threatened by several destructive forces, all of which seem to be feeding one another. We’re facing rapidly escalating legacy costs (mainly in the form of municipal retiree health benefits), decreasing tax revenues (resulting in large part from the well-documented crimes of the financial industry, and the closing of our local factories), evaporating state support, and looming bond payments (resulting from an ambitious, yet unfortunately-timed, land speculation deal initiated by our City leadership over a decade ago). And, of course, all of this is further complicated by the fact that working class Ypsilantians, hit hard by the recession, and living in a state where the financial burden is systematically being shifted onto the backs of the non-wealthy, have indicated that they’re unable to pay more in taxes in order to offset the impending devastation. So, we turn to our City Manager, asking him for suggestions as to how we might slash our budget to the bone, in hopes of buying us some time. And, it would seem that Lange has come to the conclusion that, in order to see this accomplished, we need to both consolidate our current public safety infrastructure, and demand that our public safety officers do exponentially more with fewer resources, less backup, and decreasing pay.
“I think the position is… we’re going with the hybrid public safety,” Lange told AnnArbor.com. “That’s where we’re going. It’s not just about police and fire. For the city to be successful, I have to work with council to make sure the city is literally one integrated unit.” (I’m hoping that when Lange says that the whole city will be “one integrated unit,” he isn’t envisioning a scenario in which our city clerk is called on to pull people from burning buildings, and our police officers are being called on to don hairnets and ladle out school lunches.)
If we don’t merge our public safety departments, we’re told, it would mean that we’d be forced to accept an Emergency Financial Manager, appointed by the Governor, who would not only force our police officers to fight fires, but sell our publicly-owned assets, dissolve our democratically elected local government, etc. This, of course, is an eventuality that we’ve discussed at length before. Here was my contribution to the conversation at the time.
Does anyone remember, back when we were debating whether or not to pass a City income tax, and people on the anti-tax side would refer to pro-tax people as “fear mongers” whenever they dared to bring up the fact that public safety employees would inevitably be cut, should the tax not pass? It’s kind of funny how silent these folks are now that we’re talking about cutting our full-time fire fighters down to just three, isn’t it?
As for cross-training public safety employees so that they can both fight fires and shoot criminals, I think it’s a great idea. I’d go a step further, though. I’d also have them picking up trash as they make their way around town, so that we can lay off a few more public employees. As long as these new firefighter-cop hybrids of ours are running down alleys after a criminals, for instance, why not have them scoop up some candy wrappers in their hand that’s not engaged in dispensing lethal force? Or, better yet, maybe they could just cut out the middle man, and just have the criminals do the work of public safety officers? Why not have prisoners fighting our fires? They’re plentiful, cheap and expendable… Before you laugh, you should know that it’s already being discussed in Georgia. This, my friends, is the future that we’re leaving to our children.
For those who are interested, these are all things that we’ve discussed here before…. We’ve had really great conversations over the past half-dozen years about living in a post public safety world, and the prospect of having to shoot our own bad guys and put out our own fires, like good, little “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps” Libertarians, should additional revenues not be forthcoming. And, now… finally… it looks like we’re going to get our chance to truly experience the exhilarating freedom that comes with radical self-sufficientcy. Finally, we’re throwing off the shackles of modern society, and boldly stepping into a paradise the likes of which hasn’t been seen here since our distant ancestors began living to be over 30 years old. Can you feel the excitement?
[a note to young readers: I predict that a majority of jobs in the coming decade will be in the field of private security. The rich may have decided that they don't want to continue funding police and fire services for everyone else, but they sure as hell haven't decided that they themselves should live without security and fire protection.]
And here’s what MarkMaynard.com’s resident fire fighter had to say at the time:
As a retired firefighter, let me weigh in.
First, if there is a three person department, there would be one on each shift. That firefighter would maintain the trucks, do the state reports, all the other stuff, and when a fire call comes in, would drive the fire apparatus to the scene and set up. He/She would wait for arriving personnel (whoever they are), and set up for a fire attack. The fire station in Superior Township at MacArthur Blvd was a one man station, I don’t know if that’s the case today. It would be instructive to talk to some of the guys who worked that station about the ramifications of a one man station (I use “man” as the generic firefighter, I know there are women) understanding that there were other Superior Firefighters in route.
Second, Troy has relatively new buildings, and a higher economic level than Ypsilanti and Ypsi Township. They have STRINGENT building codes and STRICT enforcement of the codes and buildings that were NOT built at the turn of the century. They have the luxury of a paid on call department that I don’t believe our area has.
Third, My thought would be that YFD would not run EMS. I would think that HVA would now run all EMS calls, as cross training Police to do firefighting is one thing (and as a personal opinion, I disagree with this idea), but to do EMT certification is something much different with very demanding and regular Continuing Ed.
Fourth, Mutual aid agreements… How will YFD be able to respond to it’s mutual aid partners with sufficient personnel and resources? Mutual aid is meant to be a quid pro quo, not a supplement of “weaker” departments by “stronger” departments (I only speak in terms of numbers, not in quality or competence). If Ypsilanti becomes a “one man shift”, how does the quid pro quo get met? It can’t.
Fifth, Brian (Robb) is incorrect when he writes, “Ypsilanti would still fight fires there same way we do today. Ypsilanti would also patrol the streets the same way.” I would ask how Brian figures that is true… You, by the nature of the changes made, would NOT fight fires or patrol the streets the same”. Those PSO officers would have competing demands on their time, training, and priorities. Guess what, Police work will always win over.
Sixth, A Fire Chief once told me, we did our jobs too well. We pushed fire education in schools, gave away free detectors, wrote fire codes. All these things reduced the number and severity of fires. Fewer people died and more property was saved. Now, in times of budget stress, the Fire Department is an easy target. What folks have to remember is that we are the best insurance you have. When the phone rings, 24/365, you will have a staffed big red/yellow truck show up to mitigate your disaster, big or small. There’s no delay, there’s no “get in line”, there’s just a response. If this amorphous proposal comes forth, that contract changes.
Seventh, how much will your insurance rates increase when your fire department is reduced to a paid on call? Maybe a little, maybe a lot, but I’ll bet there will be corresponding rate increases. They MAY be less than any tax increase to keep a full-time, staffed department, but I’d bet you will see increases, and those increases will hit your commercial buildings at a higher rate than your homes. How will your businesses respond to this “hidden” increase?
I hope I have added to the conversation. I realize that Ypsilanti faces really bad choices, but cutting Fire services to the extent described, I believe, would be a mistake.
So, do folks feel as though all of his concerns have been sufficiently addressed? Are we ready to accept the fact that we may soon be participating in this grand civic experiment? I can certainly see why, on the face of it, it makes sense. We do, after all, have to balance our budget if we hope to avoid state takeover. But it just seems to me that, while we’re focusing so intently on staying one step ahead of the axe, we’re missing the bigger issue, which is that this is all part of a coordinated campaign to decimate Michigan’s middle class. Here, with more on that, is a little something that I wrote a year or so ago. I think it’s as appropriate today as it was back then.
…Why is it that we allow the Republicans to refer to themselves as the anti-tax party, when they keep demonstrating that they clearly aren’t? Sure, they’re all for the cutting of business taxes, inheritance taxes, and other taxes that would threaten to decrease the wealth of their party’s high-net-worth donors, but, invariably, those shifts in tax policy lead to higher taxes for everyone else. Elsewhere around the United States, the shift may not be as plainly visible, but, here, in Michigan, it’s painfully obvious to all but the most delusional among us. As business taxes are being eliminated, and corporate taxes on capital assets are being phased out, the burden of maintaining public services is falling disproportionately on the shoulders of the non-wealthy, and we’re all feeling the increased financial pressure.
In Michigan, income taxes on the poor and middle class are rising, the pensions of our retirees are being taxed, tax credits for the working poor, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), are being slashed, and, with state assistance for higher education drying up, families are going into unprecedented debt in the hopes of securing stable futures for their children. The Republicans may not see all of these as tax increases, but they are. The increased insurance payments that many of us are forced to pay, because our local fire departments are being downsized, is essentially a tax. The same goes for the private school tuition that several of us are paying, rather than suffer through the constrictions of a public school system which is being systematically dismantled. And these few examples are just the tip of the iceberg. The truth is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for regular working people in Michigan to merely sustain life. Fortunately for those in power, houses aren’t selling. If they were, I suspect that most of us would be gone.
And, as those of us in Ypsilanti can attest, it’s the folks who are living in Michigan’s aging cities that are feeling the brunt of this radical redistribution of wealth. With state revenue sharing for cities dropping precipitously, one-by-one communities are being asked to make the choice — either institute a personal income tax, and pay for our own city services, or submit to the rule of an unelected Emergency Financial Manager, who will be empowered to sell off our community assets at fire sale prices, dismiss our democratically elected officials, privatize city services, and break contracts with city employee unions, essentially stripping our carcass of what little meat there is left, and sealing our fate. As long as we don’t ask the wealthy in Michigan’s upscale gated communities to contribute toward the greater good, it’s all the same to the folks in Lansing. They’re allowing us to make the choice…
In another five years, we’ll be organizing bucket brigades to fight fires, and policing our streets ourselves. The trajectory, I think, is pretty clear. And it has nothing to do with our being wasteful, or living beyond our means.