By JAMES MITCHELL and GABRIEL GOODWIN
Sunday Times Newspapers
SOUTHGATE — While city officials in Southgate and Wyandotte are ready to talk about shared service ideas, Mayor Joseph Kuspa doesn’t want people to get the wrong idea that the neighboring fire departments are getting ready to merge.
“It’s premature to think of any kind of consolidation,” Kuspa said. “We want to see if maybe there are things we can do collectively. Discussions are just that, the start of discussions. This is really very preliminary.”
A new idea, perhaps, but Kuspa said not unexpected or unwelcome. The concept had first been introduced in 2011, and earlier this year the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments conducted a feasibility study to determine if any consolidation of the two city fire departments would offer mutual benefits. The study was initiated by local officials at the request of both Southgate and Wyandotte fire unions.
Shared services to include department mergers have been approached to either enhance protection or — in communities facing budget challenges — save money. Melvindale and Dearborn recently consolidated departments, a decision that helped save current firefighters from layoff.
Many Downriver departments have been forced to lay off staff or cut back on services, although Kuspa said Southgate’s relative stability allows consideration of any consolidations to be based on raising the level of protection for residents. The approach made by the unions was of service, not savings.
“They indicated there may be some value in talking together,” Kuspa said. “We are looking to economies to providing like or better services. That’s the underlying issue as we go forward: Are there efficiencies that we can develop that makes sense for both?”
The result of the feasibility study was that there were many benefits to explore, and a presentation Monday during a meeting of the Wyandotte City Council laid out some of the potential benefits. As proposed by SEMCOG, the merger would retain the existing number of firefighters and offer savings through use of equipment, training, maintenance and administrative costs.
Wyandotte Fire Chief Jeffrey Carley spoke briefly on the hurdles both cities face moving forward in his presentation to the Wyandotte City Council. In combining the two departments, he said, they would need to consider the operational issues, union and contractual issues, and ultimately the financial aspects of the potential consolidation before anything formal would come before the council.
“These initial talks began as a result of Economic Vitality Incentive Program grants and changes in the neighboring city’s fire departments, as well as looking at a possible new way of doing business, but that is the extent of it,” Carley said. “The talks between departments are in an infancy stage, at best.”
In addressing Wyandotte’s council, Kuspa said these talks would shed some light on whether there were mutual benefits to Southgate and Wyandotte and whether the two cities could see potential cost savings in working together.
“It only makes sense that if and when Southgate considers a consolidation, Wyandotte seems to be the natural choice because the two have done so much already,” he said, “It would be beneficial to continue dialog to see if there is anything that will mutually benefit the cities.”
After the introduction of the study to both city councils, Kuspa said that an update is expected within 90 days that will determine if further, more detailed study is in order. Consolidation may be a good idea, Kuspa said, but any merging of departments remained a question more than a plan.
“There are tremendous hurdles to any consolidation,” Kuspa said. “They recommended we should continue to talk, and that’s the stage we’re at.”