Michigan City to Lay Off Entire Fire Department
The layoffs affect all 27 Allen Park firefighters except for the department's fire chief, who is appointed.

Posted: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 08:39am
Updated: Wed, 02/23/2011 - 02:04pm

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Firefighters in Allen Park this morning were still reeling over news that the city council voted to issue layoff notices to nearly the entire department.

The notices to the department's 27 firefighters are to be issued today and would take effect in 30 days, although Mayor Gary Burtka said he's "hoping to negotiate to avoid that."

City Administrator Eric Waidelich said today that the city doesn't intend to shutter the department, although the city has talked to other municipalities theoretically about how to share some city services.

The Allen Park City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to issue the notices on the advice of the lawyer that handles the city's union negotiations, in an effort to win concessions from firefighters, he said.

"The city is doing everything within its power to not lay off firefighters," Waidelich said. "It's just the economy."

The city's 2010-2011 budget was originally projected to break even, with $21 million in revenue to cover $20.7 million in expenses, Waidelich said. But falling property tax revenues and residents' failure to pay taxes and emergency medical service bills has contributed to a $1 million shortfall, he said.

"Right now I think people are in a tough place: do I put food on my table, do I pay my taxes, do I pay my EMS bill?" Waidelich said. "Cities everywhere are going to be faced with these problems."

But many firefighters and residents blame the city's budget woes on officials' failed deal with Hollywood production executive Jimmy Lifton to open Unity Studios film production and training institute in Allen Park in 2009.

"I'm fairly certain nobody slept well last night," firefighter/paramedic Craig Hickey, 36, a life-long Allen Park resident who has been on the department for 12 years, said. "The last thing I want to do is try to predict what the mayor and council will do."

Allen Park Fire Chief Doug LaFond, who believes he also will be laid off, said he was blind-sided by the move during an administrators' meeting last week.

"Their opening round of negotiations (with the firefighters' union) was 'Here are your layoff notices; hey, let's talk,'" LaFond said.

City firefighters currently have a binding contract that runs through 2013. But firefighters agreed to reopen negotiations last fall, agreeing to $800,000 in concessions that are rescinded or have to be re-negotiated by July 1. The move shaved the department's $4 million 2009-2010 budget to $3.2 million.

Firefighters who used to make an average of about $60,000 a year in Allen Park now make an average of about $55,000 a year without overtime, additional pay for working as a paramedic or an officer in charge or other benefits that used to be associated with their jobs.

Allen Park firefighter/paramedics responded to about 2,800 calls for help in 2010. They're on track to respond to about 3,050 calls this year.

"I've received six phone calls this morning from people we've saved -- one last week," four-year firefighter/paramedic Grant Peace, 27, of Clinton Township said today. "It makes me feel mayor and council are not doing the right thing for the citizens."

McClatchy-Tribune News Service