In what they called an “historic moment” members of the Van Buren Township Board of Trustees voted unanimously in their regular meeting Oct. 1 to hire six full-time fire fighters.
Clerk Leon Wright then swore in Battalion Chief Ron Folks, Lieutenant Doug Doty, Sergeant Aaron Ladach, Sergeant Ryan Smith, Firefighter Dan Walter and Firefighter Bronson Campbell.
These are all current VBT fire fighters who applied for the full-time positions.
This action came after a closed-door board session the day before to settle the union contract language and a vote to put all new hires under the new Health Care Savings Account rather than lifetime medical care.
The new full-time fire fighters are considered new hires. Four of them live in Van Buren Township.
“What an exciting time for the Public Safety Department,” said Public Safety Director Greg Laurain, noting they have had difficulty in recruiting paid-per-call candidates and this will give them better control in staffing the stations.
Treasurer Sharry Budd said at the beginning, years ago, the township had a volunteer fire department and fire fighters got $1 a year, then it finally came to being paid hourly.
“And now we have full-time,” Treasurer Budd said, adding Fire Chief Amy Brown was a part-time fire fighter for Van Buren in the past.
Trustee Reggie Miller called the vote “an historic moment,” adding, “We all worked hard together to make this happen.”
“When the chief got hired, I said we need full time. Make that happen. And, she did,” said Trustee Sherry Frazier.
“We’ll have quicker service,” Trustee Frazier said, also noting it was an historic moment for the township.
Clerk Wright said when people are considering moving to the township, they ask is the community safe? Are the schools good? What about taxes? He said this is his 11th year on the board and this had been talked about by previous administrations.
“I’m speechless,” said Trustee Kevin Martin. “When I was first elected, I wanted to see a full-time fire department … to protect our community … I’m proud to be a part of this.”
Trustee Paul White said he has lived in this community for more than 60 years and at the beginning there were two small fire stations. Now there are two state-of-the-art fire stations, he said.
“I’m fully supportive of the public safety department,” he said. “Thanks Amy, Jason, Greg,” he said to the leaders of public safety.
“I was the only one dragged down this road kicking and screaming no, no, no,” said Supervisor Kevin McNamara. He said VBT had the most cost-effective fire department and the department had Chief Brow who has outstanding training credentials.
“They became so good, the fire fighters we trained went out and got jobs,” Supervisor McNamara said. “That’s what they do.”
He said they went over this and studies show a flat line in the fire department costs with these six full-timers and, “We’re very proud of it.”
He said the township created a savings account, adding $100,000 a year, so when they need a new truck, they’ll have funds for it. The two fire halls are state-of-the-art and the equipment now is great, he said.
“We expect you to save our lives someday,” McNamara said to the full-time fire fighters.
At the beginning of the discussion on full-time fire fighters, McNamara read a lengthy prepared statement to explain the situation.
“Today, we are preparing to move the township into its next phase of growth in the area of public safety. The proposal today raises the level of security to our residents in the areas of fire safety and quickens our ability to respond to our residents’ medical emergencies,” he said.
“Over the last four years our part-time fire fighting and medical response force has dwindled. Due to national unemployment, the country is experiencing a shortage of fire fighters entering the fire service trades. It has become increasingly difficult to get fire fighters to come to work as part-timers. And when we do get a part-timer, they increasingly are finding full-time jobs in short order with other fire departments. This leaves us with yet another shift that needs to be manned by others.
“This has caused us to become extremely dependent on over-worked part-timers (making time and a half) and has forced a reliance on blended-rate officers.
“The overall proposal is to augment our 100% part-time fire fighting force by hiring six full-time fire fighters. The rest of our force will be filled in and maintained in the manner it has been maintained up until now,” McNamara said.
He said the proposal has been a year in the making and was extensively discussed in administration meetings and in the board’s budget hearings and the current budget reflects the six full-time hires.
After reviewing the numbers, Plante Moran did say although the numbers are sound, this would cause a large problem in the retiree medical benefits, he said. So, the board held off until removing retiree medical care for all its new employees and replaced it with the Retiree Health Care Savings Plan.
Failed opt-out vote
Later in the agenda, the board took a confusing vote on the proposal to exempt the township from 2011 Public Act 152. The township has opted out of PA 152 since 2011.
First, there was a motion to opt out, and then an unsuccessful motion by Miller to postpone, in order to get more information. Then Miller called the motion.
The vote was 4-3 to opt out, but a 2/3 majority vote is needed to pass that motion, so it failed, and some of those present thought it passed through the simple majority. Supervisor McNamara declared “motion passed.”
The 80/20 option in the law also needs a vote to enact, meaning the employer pays 80% of healthcare and the employee 20%. Currently VBT employees pay 10% since the township had opted out in the past.
Voting in favor of opting out were Martin, Budd, McNamara, and Wright. Voting no were White, Miller and Frazier. Under the law, the municipality must opt-out by the end of the year, or it is considered opted in to a hard-cap version that spells out the amount the municipality can pay for health care.
Wright said the township is saving more than $600,000 with the HRA health care plan in place with 10% and it’s in all the union contracts.
Police Officer Adam Byrd, president of the POLC union, obviously thinking the motion to opt out had passed since McNamara said it had, thanked the board members who voted yes to opt out of PA 152 and keep their union contracts intact. He said Budd and Wright worked hard in negotiations and the 10% is part of the POLC union contract.
Reportedly, after the meeting, Clerk Wright advised McNamara the motion had actually failed.
In other business in the two-hour-eight-minute meeting on Oct. 1, the board:
• Held a one-minute public hearing on the proposed budgets for 2020 at which no one from the public spoke;
• Approved the township board meeting schedule for 2020 and the township holiday schedule for 2020;
• Approved the supervisor’s appointment of Peter Creal to the Environmental Commission until Oct. 1, 2020 to complete the unexpired term of Kess Emekpe. Also, approved were the reappointments of Tony Gibson, David Brownlee, and Norm DeBuck to the Environmental Commission with terms to expire Oct. 1, 2022;
• Approved the update to the Meal Reimbursement section of the Reimbursement of Travel, Meal and Lodging Expenses Policy that eliminates the annual township updates and will rely on costs established annually by the federal government;
• Approved the 2020 Water and Sewer Fee Schedule that includes a raise in water/sewer rates of 5% as of Jan. 1;
• Approved purchase of a 2019 Chevy Tahoe to be used by the on-duty shift supervisor of the fire department for $37,268.75 at the state bid price. It will be purchased from Berger Chevrolet in Grand Rapids, but will be serviced locally. It was explained the Tahoe has more room in it for fire fighters in turnout gear than an Explorer. Additionally, Priority One Emergency in Canton will install $8,553.65 worth of equipment and Majik Graphics in Clinton Township will do the graphics for $675. All this is in the 2019 budget;
• Approved the personal services agreements for Alysha Albrecht and Ryan Nichols as communications specialists at a salary of $55,000 each. Among their accomplishments, Albrecht worked for the City of Ann Arbor and Nichols worked making travel videos on Princess Lines;
• Approved the selection of Master Maintenance for the painting and floorings renovations to the Belleville Area Museum at a cost of $32,984. The packing and temporary storing of everything in the museum is on another contract. The other bid for the renovation work came from Cross Renovation for $78,000. Work is expected to be complete by the end of October. Frazier said with a full-time director, she would like the museum to be open longer than 20 hours a week, the way it is now. White agreed it needed to be open longer;
• Approved the first reading of an ordinance with regards to required setbacks for non-conforming, single-family residential-zoned parcels with lake frontage. There are about 6-8 lots involved;
• Approved the selection of Natural Community Services for tree and brush removal at French Landing Park at a cost of $24,900. This will be paid with money awarded from the Wayne County Park Millage. McNamara said $19,000 has been spent to power wash and stain the dock, but in 5-10 years they will need a new dock. He said it is part of the Master Plan;
• Approved the final design of the township hall electronic message sign, designed by Veres Environmental Graphics and Signs (VEGAS) for the final cost of $54,090. Installation is to begin at once;
• Removed from the agenda a proposal that had been for a similar electronic message sign to be erected in front of the Belleville Area Museum, but was changed because the City of Belleville did not approve of electronic signs in its ordinance. A non-electronic sign was presented at a cost of $30,262, but some board members wanted the township to ask the city for an exception to its ordinance so the museum could have an electronic sign;
• Approved on a 5-2 vote a proposal for temporary full-time employees to get $500 a month in lieu of taking insurance. Trustees White and Frazier voted no, since trustees only get $250 in lieu of taking insurance. There is a temporary full-time employee in the clerk’s office. The designation of temporary full-time had to be added to the policy manual, as well;
• Approved an update to the manual for salaried employees with the language to reflect the retiree benefits changed effective Sept. 1 to receiving Health Care Savings accounts. Anyone hired prior to Sept. 1 would not be affected by these changes. The agenda item originally included officials elected after Sept. 1, 2019, but that part was removed after opposition during the work/study session; and
• Approved updated language to hire full-time firefighters in the MAFF contract, and approved updates to the MAFF, POLC Patrol and Dispatch, and POLC Command contracts to reflect the retiree benefits change effective Sept. 1, for new hires.