Mich. township votes to leave co-run fire department

Garfield Township voted to leave the three-township department, effective December 2019, due in part to "taxation without representation"


By Jordan Travis
The Record-Eagle, Traverse City, Mich.

TRAVERSE CITY — Garfield Township Trustee Steve Duell used a metaphor of three farmers to describe why he believes the township should leave the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department unless changes happen.

These three farmers own farms of differing sizes -- one small, one big and one medium, but each has equal say in what their neighbors do. Owners of the medium and small farms both could agree to something and the big farm's owner would be outvoted.

(Photo/Grand Traverse Metro Fire Facebook)
(Photo/Grand Traverse Metro Fire Facebook)

"We are losing that representation, it's taxation without representation," he said. "That's not fair to our constituents who pay taxes in Garfield Township."

That in a nutshell is why Garfield Township trustees voted 5-1 Tuesday to leave the three-township department, effective Dec. 31, 2019. Trustee Dan Walters voted against and Trustee Molly Agostinelli was absent.

Frustrations with how member townships Acme, East Bay and Garfield are represented on the board left Garfield's trustees feeling burned since the issues surfaced a few years ago and have yet to be resolved.

Acme, East Bay and Garfield currently have equal say on the authority board of directors that oversees the department, yet Garfield pays nearly half the roughly $4 million operating budget and has a larger population and taxable value than the other two townships.

Garfield could stay if department authority board members make some changes -- Duell suggested requiring a "yes" vote from at least one Acme, East Bay and Garfield representative for the department authority board to approve a motion.

Trustee Denise Schmuckal said she heard from numerous residents questioning the current power balance despite Garfield paying such a hefty share of the department budget.

Chuck Korn, township supervisor, praised the department and called the situation unfortunate, but said the township effectively is being held hostage.

And Trustee Jeane Blood Law said the current power balance could let East Bay and Acme force the department to add ambulance services -- a past issue of contention.

The issue surfaced over the past few years and in June prompted Garfield to start negotiations within the department authority board.

Authority board members met Tuesday morning, and some Garfield Township trustees balked because Korn didn't discuss the township's pending vote with authority board members -- the authority board opted to meet in early December to keep working on the overall issue.

Korn and others called those negotiations fruitless, but Walters said he thinks they're making headway. Walters and Korn represent Garfield on the authority board, and Walters believed Tuesday's move to be premature.

"We can work through most of the things we can think of as issues, and we have done nothing in regards to figuring out what we would do if we did pull out," he said.

Walters cautioned it could cost Garfield Township more than the $2 million it contributes to Grand Traverse Metro Fire to set up and run its own department.

Blood Law said the township could make contingency plans if needed, but she doesn't think it'll come to that. She's hoping the matter can be resolved within months so Garfield trustees can junk the decision to leave.

Township resident Jason Gillman told trustees he respected their decision and expected change would come.

But a few department firefighters who watched said they now feared for the future of their jobs.

Department shift Capt. Tony Posey said he understood the board's frustrations but noted that single townships don't enjoy the level of services and expertise Metro Fire provides -- and firefighters in East Bay's station frequently make runs in Garfield.

"These guys back here don't see township lines, they don't," he said. "I don't see township lines. They do what's best for the residents of Acme, East Bay and Garfield townships, and that's the bottom line."

Audience member Sherry Sprenger said her husband, now with Metro Fire, lost his job when the Grand Traverse Rural Fire Department disbanded earlier in the year. Now he faces the uncertainty of whether his job is safe while she wonders every day if her husband will come home from work.

Township resident Judith Danford also likened the dispute to Rural Fire's dissolution. She urged trustees to work to avoid having to set up Garfield's own department.

"I'm disappointed in the passage of the resolution, and I do hope and pray beyond what any of us can truly understand that this situation is resolved and that we remain with Metro," she said.

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(c)2018 The Record-Eagle (Traverse City, Mich.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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