CARO — Officials from five townships that pay the city of Caro for fire protection services say they are fed up with not having a say in how the Caro Fire Department operates and doing something about it – including possibly forming a fire authority or not renewing contracts.
Representatives from Indianfields, Almer, Ellington, Wells, and Juniata townships have met four times to discuss creating a fire authority – using Sanilac County’s Sandusky Community Fire Department Association as a model.
Currently, the city of Caro Fire Department provides fire protection services to the townships that are each under contract. Each one-year contract begins on July 1. Parts of each township are covered by other departments, too, depending on location.
But Bill Campbell, clerk, Indianfields Township – which came close to being cut off from Caro Fire service last June – said township officials who contract with Caro Fire Department have become increasingly frustrated with the “my way or the highway” approach to fire protection for a large part of Tuscola County.
“They have the toys and if we want to play with the toys, we play by their rules and that’s pretty much been their attitude,” Campbell said. Frustration levels have been expressed during recent board meetings in Ellington and Almer townships.
“We’re kind of at their mercy,” Almer Township Supervisor Jim Miklovic said at the township’s March 14 meeting. “We don’t really have much input. They tell us what it’s going to be.”
Of the Caro Fire Department’s 2015-16 budget of $151,373, about $98,000 was paid by the townships collectively.
“There should be some sort of fire authority, where the townships actually probably contributing the lion’s share of the budget, combined, have some representatives on the fire board,” Miklovic said.
Jared Olson, city manager, Caro, said he is more than happy to consider a meeting.
“As far as the city goes, I think we’re always willing to talk about becoming more efficient and more effective,” Olson said. “We’re more than willing to listen to authority talk and about becoming a mutual team.”
Campbell said the supervisors and/or board members from the townships signed a letter dated March 9 and sent it to the city of Caro. A copy has been provided to The Advertiser.
The letter states the “representatives would like to meet with representatives from the city of Caro to discuss the negation of the Fire Contract for 2016-17.”
They say they would like to discuss:
- Contract formula
- Township input on service and equipment expenses and the time period those costs are spread over.
- Obtaining copies of the line item expenses for the past two fiscal years as referenced in the contracts.
- Discuss an increase cap on operating costs.
- Discuss the city of Caro billing insurance companies for fire calls.
Campbell said the fact that the letter was sent six weeks ago and there hasn’t been a meeting yet perfectly illustrates the situation. (Olson told The Advertiser he has been working with Neil Jackson, supervisor, Juniata Township, to coordinate the meeting. Jackson declined to comment.)
“It’s consistent with the hierarchy there at the city right now,” Campbell said.
Duane Lockwood, supervisor, Ellington Township, said at the township’s annual meeting on March 26 that officials in the townships have talked about another option to forming a fire authority.
“Basically, the other township supervisors are saying they’re probably not going to sign the contract (with Caro) because they still have to come to a fire anyway,” Lockwood said, shrugging his shoulders. “Fire department’s gotta come.”
“I don’t even know how to respond to that,” Olson said. “The township boards and whatever they chose for their residents is on them.”
The Caro Fire Department was formed by a council resolution in 1884, according to the organization’s website, which also identifies the departments as “the finest fire service delivery organization in the county.”
The department consists of 25 members who are trained to a minimum “Firefighter II” levels with Hazardous Materials Operations level certification.
In 2015, the department made 175 runs. Of those, 55 percent involved calls involving grass/field, wires down and/or false/illegal alarms.
In 2014, the department made 141 runs.
“They’re doing a lot of freebie runs,” said Lockwood at Ellington Township’s March 26 meeting. “And I told the chief, I said ‘Every time you start that truck up and run it down the road it costs money.’ Wear and tear on the tires. Fuel.
“They’re doing a lot of runs…people smell gas in their house…there’s no fire,” Lockwood said. “It all adds to the costs.”
Townships are billed based on three-year averages of how frequently the Caro Fire Department runs to each community.
For the proposed 2016-17 contract, Caro has calculated contracting townships – including the city of Caro – will be billed at a per run rate of about $3,119 plus a payment of about $655 toward the cost of a 2008 pumper truck.
For example, based on a three-year average of 12.67 runs to Indianfields Township, the township has been billed about $47,829.
That’s up from the $36,044 billed to Indianfields Township for the current contract.
And if bills aren’t paid, Caro officials appear ready and willing to cut off fire protection services.
Last June, instead of paying that $36,044, Indianfields Township sent a payment of $33,468.
Campbell said Indianfields felt the township shouldn’t be held responsible for the cost of a run made to the Tuscola Area Airport, which is geographically in Indianfields Township but considered its own municipality – a debate that continues as The Advertiser reported April 19.
On June 18, Olson sent a letter to Indianfields Township officials saying that the township had to sign the contract for 2015-16 and pay the $36,044 or “the city of Caro will no longer provide fire protection to Indianfields Township.”
Olson prepared a four-page “Resolution Terminating Fire Department Services by The City of Caro to Indianfields Township.” By comparison, the actual contract is two pages.
Campbell said with no recourse before the contract expired June 30, Indianfields acquiesced and paid the amount they were billed.
Campbell said years of frustration have culminated with the Caro Fire Department’s purchase of 16 self-contained breathing apparatus – sophisticated equipment more commonly called “air packs” that provides firefighters oxygen during emergencies.
The total bill for the purchase was about $101,000, Olson said.
Township officials say the Caro Fire Department was counting on a grant to fund the purchase, but the grant fell through and the cost has been built into the proposed 2016-17 contracts.
“They were supposed to get a grant and they didn’t get a grant so now we gotta eat the whole thing,” Lockwood said.
The air packs came up during the March 14 Almer meeting, too.
“Last year their operating costs went up about $30,000 and then this year they bought those air packs without really consulting anybody else,” Dennis said.
“So when you start calculating the three-year average, our costs went up a little over 66 percent this year compared to last year,” Almer Townnship Trustee Charles Dennis said.
Almer’s contract with the Caro Fire Department is proposed to increase from $18,928 for 2015-16 to $31,446 for 2016-17.
“As seen in the audits and financial breakdown, the two preceding fiscal years were as bare bones as possible as it was the plan for several years to possibly have to purchase the much needed (air packs) and the council scheduled that out as to maintain as low of three-year average as possible,” Olson said. “This was done so that a single high year would be hopefully offset as much as possible by low expenditures years and thus the annual contract formula for all entities would remain as low as possible while maintaining a safe, efficient, and highly trained fire department.”
But the air packs are just one example, township officials have said.
For example, Dennis said the township representatives seek the information so they can get better understanding of where money is going and purchases like the air packs aren’t made without everyone who pays having a say.
“Like (Caro Fire Chief Randy Heckroth) claims he’s (Caro’s) blight enforcement officer and also their zoning administrator but I don’t know if they’re taking all of his wages and putting it in the whole budget,” Dennis said.
A meeting between Caro and the townships had not been set as of press time.
Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org