Local Towns Look for Ways to Cut Public Safety Costs

By: Liam Martin Email
By: Liam Martin Email

LEONI TOWNSHIP -- Chief Brian Thurston is no longer a firefighter -- or a police officer. He's both.

"All of [our] police officers have been cross-trained to be state-certified firefighters," said Thurston, the public safety director for Leoni Township.

In November, the township consolidated its police and fire forces into one unit: The Department of Public Safety. They cut seven firefighters in the process.

"The township supervisor is estimating it's going to save over $200,000 a year," Thurston said.

With city and town budgets crunching across Michigan, state Senate Republicans are considering a similar plan. The Senate Reforms and Restructuring Commitee announced Wednesday possible legislation to make it easier for neighboring cities to actually share or combine their police and fire services.

"Police officers and firefighters, as critical and as important as they are to the state and our local communities -- they can't be immune," said Howard Shifman, a management attorney for employers across the state.

Problem is, many towns pay their employees a different salary, and as it stands now, Michigan law requires any two towns sharing services to pay the higher of the two rates.

Union reps don't want that to change. But many towns say it might be the only way to save money.

"If they can't control their costs -- and labor, by the far, is the biggest cost that any local government has, and public safety the biggest cost within that labor unit -- they're not going to survive," said Tony Minghine of the Michigan Municipal League.

While Chief Thurston, meanwhile, says his internal consolidation is going well, he does worry about the loss of personnel needed to achieve it.

"We're one step away from disaster."

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