A contentious issue in town may see a resolution in the coming months—the final steps toward fire district consolidation in Hamilton could happen this year.
Township council approved an ordinance in September to consolidate the eight districts into one municipal department—rather than one or multiple independent districts. This move would give the mayor and council control over the department once the process is completed.
Consolidation has been a topic of discussion for over two decades, said township business administrator David Kenny, but talks have picked up steam over the last few years. However, while many municipal and fire officials agree that consolidation should happen, the terms are still up for debate.
There are currently eight fire districts in Hamilton, plus one shared department in Chesterfield that would not be part of consolidation. The total fire budget in 2018 was $27.8 million, which Kenny said is a 14 percent increase over the last two years. In comparison, the total township budget in 2018 was $68 million.
“I would hope that we can cap the fire budget in the $22-$23 million a year range, as opposed to the almost $28 million right now,” Kenny said. “That would be my wish. I think there’s some ways we can get there, but it’s going to take some tough decisions.”
There are five fire chiefs between the eight districts averaging salaries of $176,000 each per year. The districts currently employ 130 firefighters, and Kenny says their average salary is $98,000 per year, plus $15,000 in overtime. Additionally, each district has its own board of commissioners, which will be dissolved under the new agreement, said Hamilton council vice president Jeff Martin.
“There won’t be a need for those salaries,” he said. “We submitted an application to the department of community affairs with a draft budget to show how everything would look when bringing it to a municipal department. In 2018, that column showed about $400,000 in expenses. In the draft budget, that would say $0.”
This would be in addition to savings potentially achieved by lowering the fire budget and the number of firefighters. According to a state analysis commissioned by the township, between 105 and 107 firefighters and a $22 million budget would be “sufficient,” Kenny said.
“They work one day on for 24 hours, and then they have three days off,” Kenny said. “They work a total of 91 days a year. If I take the amount of fire calls that they address, it’s about 6,000 per year. That works out to two calls every 24 hours for each firehouse.”
Of those 6,000 calls, Kenny says about 300 are actual fires. Many are EMS calls, like automobile accidents. He feels that the current system is inefficient.
“I think as a municipal department you could work together to have a policy, and the dispatcher could take the call and say, ‘OK, we have a police officer within a minute of the place,’” Kenny said. “Then the police officer will get there, and if he needed assistance, he could always call for more. But don’t send a fire truck or sometimes two up here. Two districts will respond if they’re nearby.
“It’s not a very efficient system when you’re working 24 hours, you’re permitted to sleep on the job because, let’s face it, humans can’t work 24 hours straight, and you’re only doing two calls. The vast majority of those calls are not fires, so they don’t take 12 hours per call. There’s an awful lot of downtime. That’s where we have to achieve greater efficiency in this whole system.”
Fire representatives are concerned about the shift in total firefighters and salaries, and many would like to keep the 24-hour shift. The township would like to change shift schedules and cut down on overtime spending. Kenny mentioned the possibility of physically consolidating within the firehouses.
Currently, residents pay a fire tax based on what district they live in. The tax is set by the fire districts during annual elections in February. With consolidation, that will be tacked onto the municipal tax, though the number could change. Fire taxes currently range from 16 cents to 74 cents, so the lowest ones could see a slight increase, while the highest ones could see a slight decrease. Though elections will be held next month, once the municipal fire department is official, they will be discontinued.
The September ordinance stated that consolidation could not happen without an agreement with the firefighters’ labor unions. Township officials had their first negotiation with the two bargaining groups Nov. 20, and a second session was set for Dec. 20. The second session wrapped up after press time.
Kenny says the timeline of consolidation largely depends on the remainder of the negotiation process and discretion of the local finance board, which meets once a month. The initial date proposed in the ordinance was Jan. 1, 2019, but Kenny said that is not feasible.
“I think that residents expect that it will save money, having consolidation,” he said. “Our concern is that with a 15 percent increase in spending in the last two years, we’re starting with an artificially high base of spending, and we have to bring that base down.”