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City manager addresses potential $600K cut to Muskegon Fire Department

MUSKEGON, Mich. -- Muskegon's City Manager is responding to public outrage over a potential $600,000 cut to the fire department, saying salaries and benefits in the department have spiraled out of control.

So out of control, that the city is looking into new ways for the fire department to be staffed and run. The city has ideas but no definite plans because they are waiting to talk to the union about what they can negotiate on to keep costs down.

Many residents were angered by the proposed cut during Tuesday's meeting after a union member said the reductions could cost lives.

Muskegon City Manager Frank Peterson says they aren't going to make any quick decisions without putting the community's safety first, but they are moving forward with a new plan for the department.

He says they need to get a handle on their costs.

"The additional costs are stemming from the fire department, and they are mostly 100 percent related to rising pension costs, rising healthcare, rising healthcare pension costs," Peterson said.

The city says it's the Achilles Heel of the fire department: old pension programs and benefits that have since been discontinued. Officials say the majority of the firefighters in the department still have those expensive benefits.

"So the bulk of the department that is still in place is the most expensive employees," Peterson says.  "And those same employees have retiree healthcare. They were budgeted $4 million for salary and wages; $2 million of that was salaries and the other $2 million was benefits.  And that's what we are really trying to wrap our head around, is that we don't have a mechanism to reduce those benefits."

The city is looking for a new, sustainable model, Peterson says.

"There are certain times of day people call, certain times of week, and if we can pick a model that allows us to build up when we need to be big and then small when we need [to be] small and affordable it will average out to be a great department to meet the needs of the community and fiscally fit in with what we need to do."

And Peterson says everything is on the table, from contracting out services, switching around shifts, negotiating with the union for benefit reductions and even shrinking the department.

"There will very likely be cuts, but you can see the budget we are talking about removing $600,000 out of a $4 million budget. If that's half the staff then someone is not doing the math right," he said.

Firefighters FOX 17 spoke with say that the pension costs are a direct result of the city failing to make their contributions to the fund and diverting the money elsewhere.  Peterson said it's the model itself that won't last and will cause problems in the future if they don't fix it now.

The city isn't making any decisions without trying to negotiate with the union first.

"If the fire union says 'We are not cutting benefits, we are not doing anything. We want status quo. If you want to save money you got to do it with less people and bear the brunt of it,' then yeah we won't have much choice.  We will have to do something different," Peterson said.

The city's budget has to be submitted to the state by July 1.  Peterson said this isn't a problem that's going to get fixed in the next two weeks, but it's a start to figure out how they can make the fire department sustainable for years to come.

Another public meeting about the budget is scheduled for June 27.

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