Fire Cuts For City Budget

April 29, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — City Manager Kurt Kimball and Fire Chief John VanSolkema want to reassure residents that cuts recommended in the fire service for fiscal 2006 won’t pose a great threat to either public safety or firefighter safety.

Kimball has made it clear that the city’s problem is one of a growing general operating fund deficit that will continue to grow faster than revenues if changes aren’t made. For the past four years, the city has sold property, spent reserves, used one-time fixes and reduced staffing to achieve a balanced budget. It also has worked with its 13 unionized employee groups to secure health care cost savings.

The city’s budget process and its approach to the budget this year has been very different from past years. This year, the city tapped local experts for advice in revenue estimating and business practices. The city also has tried to follow the tenants laid out in the book “The Price of Government,” which takes a radically different approach to budgeting. The book outlines how leaders can use consolidation, competition, customer choice and a “relentless focus” on outcomes to save millions and improve public service at the same time.

Further, the city took the approach of focusing on the 2006 fiscal year within the context of a five-year plan to avoid having “to squeak through” one year at a time using Band-Aid measures.

“We recognized it’s not a matter of just waiting it out a few more months then the economy is going to turn around and we’ll grow our way out of the problem,” said Scott Buhrer, assistant city manager for fiscal services. “The five-year budgeting approach I helped introduce this year demonstrated that.”

Business advisers consulted said that if their companies had a budget problem of the city’s magnitude, they would look for efficiencies in areas that constitute the bulk of budget expenses, Kimball said. Police and fire combined make up more than 50 percent of the budget.

“So if you have a $135 million problem over the next five years in the General Fund, how do you avoid looking at those two large departments for opportunities for efficiencies?” he asked.

Last year the city eliminated 17 Police Department positions and left 23 positions authorized but unfunded. The city then minimized the service impact on citizens by coming up with a new shift schedule for officers, Kimball explained.

“The effect was negligible, if distinguishable at all, on the part of how we police. And we were able to save community policing by doing that.”

So far, the city hasn’t had the same success in trying to reduce expenditures in the Fire Department. The preliminary fiscal plan calls for elimination of Engine Company No.7 at the Franklin Street Fire Station, which would involve 12 fire firefighter positions. Fire Chief VanSolkema agrees that elimination of No. 7 would be the best move if the city hopes to achieve efficiencies with minimal service impacts.

VanSolkema said the Fire Department has cut 50 percent of its non-firefighting suppression jobs over the past two years. To achieve another 5 percent reduction this year, the only place his department could target was fire suppression, he said.

The Franklin Street Fire Station currently has three pieces of first-line equipment — Engine No. 7, Engine No. 10 and a ladder truck, VanSolkema said.

“If Engine 7 was eliminated, the response district that it does cover is not that big, so Engines 12, 10, 11 and 1 would pick up pieces of that,” he said. “ Response time wouldn’t be longer because we still have the other two machines there so the first machines would arrive at the same time. We would also send the same complement of people to a structure fire; it’s just that another engine from one of the other stations would come from a little further away. So neither citizen nor firefighter safety would be impacted with elimination of Engine 7.”

To streamline costs further, the department is experimenting with a medical emergency pilot program. Between 70 percent and 80 percent of the department’s calls are for medical emergencies, not structural fires, VanSolkema said. On April 4 the department started using Ford Expeditions staffed by two people to answer medical emergencies, thereby saving wear and tear on the behemoth fire trucks that traditionally get dispatched to cover those calls.

“It makes more sense for two people to go to a medical emergency in a Suburban than a big fire engine and three people,” he said. “Normally just two people are needed for an incident.”

Sending a fire engine down the road costs $3.50 a mile, a ladder truck $6.50 a mile and an SUV less than $1 a mile. On top of that, a fire engine costs $650,000 new and a ladder truck $850,000-plus.

The department also is trying to combat overtime costs by going to a median staffing standard of 228, VanSolkema said. Overtime for the department is approaching $800,000 for fiscal 2005.

“In the month of April we spent $6,000 in overtime total, so we are starting to get a hold of it and feel confident that with our minimum standard we’ll be able to basically eliminate our overtime costs and still maintain adequate staffing.”    

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