Detroit FD facing more cuts

City budget will cut pay by 10% and layoff more than 100 firefighters

By Darren A. Nichols
The Detroit News 

DETROIT —  Nearly a quarter of the city work force would be eliminated, services would be slashed and departments would disappear under the detailed version of Mayor Dave Bing's proposed budget delivered Monday to the City Council.

The plan, which includes $250 million in cuts to all departments, expands on an initial proposal presented April 12.

Council members will begin deliberations next week over the fiscal plan, the first to be hammered out under a consent deal with the state to overhaul Detroit's finances.

The $1.1 billion budget would ax 2,566 positions from the city's 11,000-member work force. It also would reform operations and consolidate some departments, including health and wellness, work force development, human services and the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport.

It calls for 10 percent pay cuts for all employees, including police and firefighters, when union contracts are renegotiated this summer.

"We have to do this, and we've been saying (it) all along," Council President Charles Pugh said of the proposed layoffs, which are in addition to 1,000 job cuts announced earlier.

Pugh added layoffs so far stand around 300. About 700 positions have been lost overall, he said, including those through attrition or retirements since Bing's earlier announcement.

"We knew this time was coming," Pugh said. "We're simply going to do the same level of service or more service with fewer people, which means we have to be creative. This budget is pretty ambitious. Unfortunately we don't have a lot of time."

Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis said the impact on services will be varied. "The goal is to try to create efficiencies in how we deliver services to our citizens," he said.

Lewis said the newest set of layoffs will start in the new fiscal year, which begins July 1.

In the presentation Monday, Chris Brown, the city's chief operating officer, told the council it "will have to decide for itself what (services) it believes is core."

Anthony Minghine, chief operating officer of the Michigan Municipal League, said the cuts will be a positive for the region, but they'll be "devastating" to services in the city.

"If you don't provide the core level of services, how do you attract residents?" he said. "You need to have people who live in the city who are educated and make a good living."

Major cuts to departments
The proposed budget, which reduces spending by $160 million, seeks to focus on providing efficient services in seven core areas: public safety, transportation, public lighting, garbage collection, parks and recreation, streets and landscaping and permits. 

The city currently operates 41 departments and agencies.

General fund revenue from the city's top five sources is expected to decrease by about $80 million. A decrease in property taxes accounts for almost $36 million.

City resident Curt Jacobson said the city needs to pursue lost revenue more aggressively.

"Every doctor, lawyer or delivery man who fails to file a city income tax (return) we should go after," said Jacobson, 83, who worked for the city for 26 years. "We're losing so much money, it's ridiculous. There's money there if we go out and collect it."

Under the proposal, the public works department would reduce its spending by $13.2 million. The solid waste fee would remain $240 for residential customers. Seniors would pay $120.

The finance department would take a 16 percent reduction; administrative hearings would be cut 53 percent; human resources would be reduced 41 percent; the law department would be cut 55 percent, and the mayor's office would be cut 44 percent.

The fire department's budget would decrease about 13 percent to about $160 million, while its work force would fall to 1,250 from 1,400. It would take a $23.4 million cut, but would retain 100 positions through a federal grant.

Detroit Fire Fighters Association President Dan McNamara said the department is already stretched too thin.

McNamara said his membership stands at about 1,000, with a little more than 900 on the street. McNamara said it's bureaucracy that's holding the department back.

"We're at a critical needs level right now," McNamara said. "These are boots on the ground that we need. I don't understand the priorities sometimes.

"We want to continue to keep the city safe but we're stretched critically. We still have 8 to 10 fire companies browned out per day, meaning they're closed, and we're not anywhere near full strength now. Everywhere we turn, the fire department is at minimum staffing or below."

Some on council concerned
Cmdr. Steve Dolunt, president of the Command Officers Association, said he wasn't surprised, but said a 10 percent cut "will hurt."

"We'll still be professionals and do our jobs. Hopefully they won't eliminate any positions," Dolunt said.

The budget proposal eliminates both the workforce development and health departments. The city wants to create an authority to run both areas effective July 1.

The city also is looking to eliminate the Coleman Young Municipal Airport through a transfer to an authority, creation of an independent agency or a potential joint venture.

"Our job is to scrutinize this plan, but to do what we can to make it work," Pugh said. "We're going to have to have a discussion on what is a core service and what is the airport. Really? That is not a core service."

City officials also want to eliminate the human rights department, but officials are exploring options since the department is mandated by the charter.

Councilman James Tate expressed concern over cuts to the city's law department, which oversees settlement agreements.

"When I saw a 55 percent cut, that scares me," Tate said. "I know we have to do something. It's going to be difficult to completely overhaul the law department with a 55 percent cut."

Councilwoman Saunteel Jenkins said she is concerned about elimination of the health department, which runs health clinics, substance abuse programs, HIV/AIDS awareness, vital records and the Women, Infant and Children nutrition program.

Jenkins said the city subsidizes about $6 million for the department, but it receives about $83 million in grant money.

"It's going to be a very intense budget process this year because there will be so many huge changes in the way we do business," Jenkins said. "I don't know if it's necessarily cost-effective to cut the health department and they serve the most vulnerable people in the city."

The budget represents the start of Detroit's restructuring efforts in the wake of a consent agreement between the city and state approved earlier this month. Rough cash projections over three years indicate the city could end 2015 with a surplus of $240 million, ending years of deficits. The city's accumulated deficit is about $265 million.

The proposal calls for general fund spending to decline from last year's $1.22 billion. It reduces police spending $75 million to $340 million and cuts staff through attrition and work rules to about 2,950 from about 3,300.

Subsidies for the transportation department, which has struggled for months with service cuts, are expected to decrease from $53 million to $43 million. The clerk's office would be cut by more than $1 million, while the Elections Department faces a nearly $2 million cut.

Patty Fedewa, a member of the advocacy group Transportation Riders United, told the council on Monday the cuts to the transportation department don't make sense. She said she's seen route service reduced twice in the last few months and four times in the past year.

"The cuts feel almost random sometimes. We're wondering, 'What is the big plan?'"

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