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Letter to the Editor: Support the consolidated fire departments of Dexter and Scio

(This letter is from Brook Smith of Dexter Township.)

To the Editor:
Last night, (Jan. 21) during the public comment portion of a meeting of the Dexter Township Board of Trustees, there were lengthy discussions of the pros and cons of a proposed plan to create a regional agreement among Dexter Township, the Village of Dexter, Webster Township and Scio Township to provide fire protection and emergency response services to the residents of the member communities.

Dexter Township, the Village of Dexter, and Webster Township are presently parties to a similar agreement under which fire and emergency services are delivered. Further, this agency, the Dexter Area Fire Department (“DAFD”), has a “mutual aid” agreement which provides services to Scio Township in the event of large accidents, fires or other catastrophic emergency situations, and vice versa.  Mutual aid is provided without charge to the department receiving the aid.  The new proposal is for the four municipalities to enter into an agreement that is similar to the agreement that created the DAFD and to operate as the Washtenaw Consolidated Fire and Rescue Department.

The proposed agreement has been the subject of negotiations between representatives of the affected municipalities for more than four years, and is now ready for adoption if all of the municipalities agree.

The proponents of adoption argue that the agreement will help lower the cost of emergency services to Dexter Township residents. They project a savings in excess of $50,000 in the first year of operation and also indicate that $400,000+ dollars of unfunded DAFD pension costs will be assumed by the new department. The proposed agreement includes a cap on cost increases in the absence of agreement by three of the four municipalities to such an increase.

Proponents also argue that the combined fire department will be better trained, better equipped and better integrated, which will reduce emergency response times and generally improve services.  The proponents also note that the fire fighters in all of the municipalities support the proposed agreement.

Approximately 30 people were in the audience for last night’s meeting and many spoke favorably on the issue of adoption of the agreement.  There was enthusiastic public support with not a single member of the public in opposition.

A member of the audience asked those members of the Board of Trustees who oppose adoption of the plan to state their reasons.

These were the reasons given:

  • The agreement will result in combining firefighters, who are presently represented by two different unions, under the same command.
  • Thirty years ago, Scio Township unilaterally withdrew from a similar agreement with negative consequences to Dexter Township.
  • The existing “mutual aid” arrangement between the two departments is “good enough” to provide the services necessary to Dexter Township residents.
  • Under the new agreement, there are stiff penalties to any municipality that unilaterally withdraws.
  • Dexter Township will only have two of the nine votes on the governing body, while Scio Township will have three votes.
  • Any proposal to give up local control and to enlarge the department should be avoided because larger governmental institutions are inherently cumbersome and more expensive.  Agreeing to this change will mean that additional municipalities will be added in the future and the resulting entity will become even more unwieldy.

The proponents of the plan as well as members of the public provided these responses to the stated objections:

  • Harley Rider, township clerk, stated that the Dexter Area Fire Department just completed negotiation of a new labor agreement with its local union and that part of the negotiation process is that the recently negotiated DAFD agreement closely parallels the current Scio Township labor agreement. Mr. Rider, as a point person on the labor negotiations, indicated that labor issues were not likely to be a problem with the proposed agreement.
  • Thirty years ago, when Scio Township withdrew from a similar agreement, there were no negative incentives to the unilateral withdrawal.  Under the proposed agreement, there are significant penalties for unilateral withdrawal.
  • While Scio Township and the DAFD do work together on major emergencies, there is a built-in delay in beginning the process while the severity of the emergency is determined. Currently, the two departments use different equipment and protocols, do not regularly train together, and generally are not as efficient in team situations as they could be under the proposed agreement.
  • If the four municipalities agree to dissolve the agreement, it can be done without penalty, but for the reason set forth by some members as a concern in item 2, there needs to be a disincentive to unilateral withdrawal as there is in the current DAFD agreement.
  • The Dexter Township representatives in the negotiations would like Dexter Township to have more than 22% of the votes on the new department governing body, but it’s hard to argue that Scio Township’s 33% voting rights are unfair given the fact that Dexter Township will be contributing approximately 16% of the operating funds for the combined department while Scio Township will be contributing more than 50%.

None of the opponents of the plan have submitted financial analyses refuting the projected $50,000 first year savings to Dexter Township from the proposed agreement. Dexter Township has years of successful experience in the DAFD and should not fear expanding operations to include Scio Township. As to the fear that this plan will lead to further expansions, this could only occur if Dexter Township’s Board agrees to a later expansion.

None of these responses were rebutted by the public or any of the Board Members.

At the close of the public hearing, Trustee Jason Maciejewski moved for approval of the plan. Trustees Mike Howard, Carl Lesser, Libby Brushaber, and Bill Gajewski, all of whom had expressed opposition to the plan, supported a motion to table and the proposal died – at least for last night.

If you were unable to attend the meeting, it is available for viewing here.

I urge all residents of Dexter Township to consider this issue and contact your elected Board Members to encourage them to support the creation of the Washtenaw Consolidated Fire and Rescue Department. If any Board Member is unable to provide better reasons to oppose the plan than were stated last night, I urge you to vote for his/her replacement at the next opportunity.
Brook Smith
Dexter Township Resident

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