City Administrator Memo To Council: “At this time, I am not proceeding with reducing the number of fire stations”
by P.D. Lesko
John Hieftje and his political pals have a reputation of ignoring public opinion. Perhaps the most egregious example was a 2008 Council meeting at which petitions with 6,000 signatures were presented to Council to urge them to put the question of whether to spend $75 million dollars to build a new city hall to a public vote. The public’s concerns were dismissed, as were the petitions.
Then the service cuts began in earnest.
In 2010, John Hieftje and his political pals on Council voted to cut fire services despite protests from residents. In 2011, John Hieftje and his political pals on Council voted to cut fire services despite protests from residents, and public protests from the city’s former fire chief. Former Chief Dominick Lanza sent Council members a letter that made it clear further cuts were unwise and irresponsible. Lanza confessed that the city’s fire coverage was sub-standard. Despite Lanza’s letter and the results of a $54,000 report on the city’s fire services that concluded coverage and response times were compromising public safety, Hieftje and political pals voted to slash funding for safety services, demanding repeated pay concessions from firefighters. After the firefighters’ union agreed to pay concessions not once but twice, Hieftje and political pals began to push a scheme to close half of the city’s six fire stations. In summer 2012, Hieftje and his political pals voted to kill not one but two resolutions brought forward by Ward 2 Council member Jane Lumm to increase police and fire staffing levels.
At the 2012 December Council retreat, Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall and Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere argued doggedly in favor of closing fire stations. They argued against Ward 1 Council member Sumi Kailasapahy, Ward 2 Council members Jane Lumm and Sally Hart Petersen and Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin. Teall and Briere were joined by Ward 3 Council member Christopher Taylor and John Hieftje. Fewer stations, the Borg Queen and his remaining Hive Mind Collective argued, would result in much “better service.”
It has become clear that Ann Arbor voters are getting fed up with paying some of the highest property taxes per capita in the state of Michigan in exchange for reduced services.
In January 2013, Ann Arbor City Administrator Steve Powers sent Council members a memo that included the following:
At this time, I am not proceeding with reducing the number of fire stations. The fire success statement for the Public Safety priority area: Fire station locations, number, and infrastructure are optimized to meet community needs and industry standards, within City resources. The number and location of fire stations should not be decided independent of the work plan that accomplishes the success statement.
It’s another embarrassing loss for Hieftje and his shrinking Hive Mind Collective—a group of pols whose votes show they would much rather build parking garages on parkland, use General Fund money for studies on non-existent trains, fund perks and gimmes for city managers, and use public money to help their developer friends rather than fix the roads, pick up leaves, maintain the parks or keep public pools in good shape.
In April 2011, John Hieftje, accompanied by Ward 3 Council member Christopher Taylor, visited the offices of AnnArbor.com for a sit down interview. Hieftje, during the course of that interview, told the news blog, “We’ve been pretty comfortable in reducing police numbers,” he said, pointing out crime is going down and the University of Michigan now has 54 of its own officers. And we’re studying the fire side, looking very intently at it. So we’re pretty comfortable with what we’re doing.” At that time, Ann Arbor officials were floating the idea of eliminating 37 more positions in public safety over the next two years — 25 in police and 12 in fire.
Then in November 2011 long-time Hieftje pal and city labor union basher Ward 2 Council member Stephen Rapundalo was handed a crushing defeat by Independent Jane Lumm. Lumm’s attention to the bottom line, financially, and to detail, has made her hugely popular not only among her constituents but city-wide.
In August 2012, Hieftje lost three of his Hive Mind Collective when Ward 1 Council member Sandi Smith refused to run against Sumi Kailasapathy, no doubt afraid she, like Rapundalo, would be humiliated by an immensely popular opponent. Ward 5 Council member Carsten Hohnke decamped from Council to “spend more time with his family.” In Ward 2, Hieftje drone Tony Derezinski found himself battling an opponent with an MBA, as well as marketing experience. Sally Hart Petersen ran a nimble, savvy campaign, and for some unknown reason Derezinski, who’d raised over $8,500 in campaign donations according to campaign finance forms, spent only around $3,000 on his race against Petersen. Even though Petersen stumbled and committed a campaign finance violation revealed prior to the election, she beat Derezinski handily.
Suddenly, the Borg Queen Hieftje found himself surround by Council members who’d run on the issue of not only protecting safety service funding but expanding safety services to undo the deep cuts with which Hieftje, in April 2011, had bragged to the public he was “pretty comfortable.”
John Hieftje isn’t comfortable anymore. John Hieftje isn’t having fun anymore; he’s stumbling from political disaster to political disaster, a punch-drunk fighter getting pummeled, primarily due to his own arrogance. After the new Council members were seated in November, at the December 2012 City council retreat, when the topic of transportation was discussed, Hieftje pushed trains. Sally Hart Petersen told her colleagues that trains should not be included in plans related to local transit before the locally-funded AATA bus service was improved. She was joined by Jane Lumm, Ward 5 Council member Mike Anglin and Sumi Kailasapahy. Hieftje didn’t get his way.
At that same City Council retreat, Hieftje, Ward 1 Council member Sabra Briere and Ward 4 Council member Margie Teall argued in favor of closing fire stations. Briere has voted against funding fire coverage her entire time on Council. She has voted repeatedly to cut fire staffing, and even voted against a 2012 resolution offered by by Jane Lumm, which would have increased fire staffing with federal and state grants. Instead, Briere voted to use General Fund money to fund more work on the non-existent Fuller Road train station, which Hieftje wants to build on fragile Huron River parkland.
In 2010 AAFD union leaders stood before Council and told members staffing levels were sub-standard. Briere voted to cut staffing nonetheless. In 2011, less than one year after Dominick Lanza took the job as Ann Arbor’s Fire Chief, he handed in his resignation. Only then, did Dominick Lanza tell the truth. Months earlier, with the same number of fire fighters that Ann Arbor has now, Lanza claimed coverage was adequate, “manageable.” Then, in a March 18, 2011 letter to Council, Lanza confessed,
Current staffing levels are below nationally recognized standards and make the Ann Arbor Fire Department a “one-fire incident department,” Lanza writes. ”I urge you to move forward cautiously, pursue regional fire protection as a way to save and be more effective. Paid on-call and volunteer are not the answer. Your jobs are difficult but I implore you, be strong, make the right decisions, do not further undermine the effectiveness of your fire department.”
In response to Lanza’s confession, Briere told AnnArbor.com concerning substandard fire safety services: “I feel as if I’ve just been told the truth.”
In March 2012 new Fire Chief Chuck Hubbard stood before Council and said, you guessed it, “more firefighters and equipment would lead to better service.” After Hubbard spoke before Council on March 12, 2012, Briere piped up and said she “recalled the city discussed the issue of fire response a couple of years ago and she remembers being told everything was OK. We were told that two people coming from Station 1 and two people coming from Station 3 could converge on the fire and everything would be covered.”
At the March 12, 2012 City Council meeting, after Hubbard spoke, Briere asked if the information had changed or if the data Hubbard presented was just a different way of looking at the department’s staffing.
Hubbard replied, “The information hasn’t changed.”
The fact of the matter is that Ann Arbor doesn’t have enough firefighters or equipment, according to former Chief Lanza and present Chief Hubbard. Ann Arbor hasn’t had enough firefighters or equipment for years, and more people are dying in house fires as a result, according to a 2011 study done by the firefighters’ union.
Regardless, Hieftje and his remaining drones, Sabra Briere, Margie Teall and Ward 3 Council member Christopher Taylor, continued to argue that having fewer fire stations would lead to “better service.” In March 2012, Chief Hubbard came up with a plan that proposed “closing Station 3, at 2130 Jackson Avenue, Station 4, at 2415 Huron Parkway and Station 6 near Briarwood Mall. It would maintain Station 1, located on Fifth Street between Huron and Ann Streets and Station 5, located near the Northwood housing area and reopen the formerly closed Station 2, at Packard and Stadium Streets. In the proposed model, the AAFD would retain its staff of 82 firefighters and redistribute its trucks and personnel among the stations, establishing the battalion chief at Station 1,” according to a piece published in the Michigan Daily.
The Michigan Daily reported that Tony Derezinski said he was “impressed by the proposal. I think this is a very creative way of doing this. You are really pulling a rabbit out of the hat … by effecting increased coverage (with) fewer stations.” Five months later Derezinski was gone, replaced by a pro-safety services Sally Hart Petersen.
The public has reacted to the plan to close fire stations angrily in comment sections of local news blogs and at Council meetings during public commentary. In September 2012, city officials took a dog and pony show on the road to “explain the plan” to the public. They got a rude awakening. Comments on AnnArbor.com reflected the public’s nasty mood:
“It is amazing that this discussion of closing fire stations continues while the art fund grows. Boggles the mind.”
“And Nero fiddled while Rome burned………….”
“The city would have plenty of money for necessities like fire safety, policing and fixing our roads (and sidewalks) if it hadn’t squandered over $100 million on the Rog Mahal, Garage Mahal and the Huronal, or run up a $200 million deficit in the pension and retirement healthcare funds.”
“That Chief Hubbard is put in the position of suggesting closing stations and settling for substandard response times is absolutely unconscionable. Public safety is the first priority of a City government. It must precede all else — there can be no discussion about parks, art, affordable housing, monorails or anything else until public safety is adequately addressed. That the Mayor and Council abrogate their fundamental responsibility to the citizens so brazenly speaks to a failure on the part of the press and the citizenry to pay attention. Shame on them, and shame on us. This is smoke and mirrors 3 stations at 4 people equals 12, 5 stations at 3 people equal 15 so there is a reduction in the firefighters on duty of 3. Also add to that the 2 man wonder truck( no water or hose) responding instead of an engine on any given day it drops to 11. I dont work in Ann Arbor anymore because I refused to go along with the city’s desire to dangerously reduce fire fighting capabilities and risk firefighter and citizens lives. I also wonder why the city can spread “propaganda” on this matter but the firefighters have a gag order? Perhaps the city doesnt want educated oposing opinions or factual information out so the public can make an informed decision. This problem could be solved easily if the University paid their fair share of the cost instead of being shielded by the state. Dominick Lanza, Former Fire Chief AAFD”
In August 2012, Hieftje stalwart supporter Margie Teall came 18 votes from losing her seat to pro-safety services Council candidate Jack Eaton. Eaton not only supported protecting safety service funding, but called for “rebuilding” decimated safety services. At an August 2012 candidate event, Eaton said, “The proposal to close fire stations is on the immediate horizon and alarms me. ”I think that is not the correct manner to address the problems with fire response times.” Even after he lost, Eaton continued to champion the need to rebuild the city’s safety services at public meetings and in the comment sections of various local news blogs.
Powers’ recent memo to Council members in which he quietly drops a plan he was forced to spend months defending to an irate public makes clear that the wind has changed. One Council member said, “Look for a 2013-2014 city budget that is focused on funding services and the restoration of lost services. It’s about time, don’t you think?”
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