Union effort may affect millage vote
Firefighters voted to unionize shortly after last millage vote
The last time the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority asked voters to renew a millage levy, the measure carried by just seven tenths of a percentage point.
A request to renew the same 2.3- mill property tax levy approved nearly two years ago will appear on ballots in Suttons Bay and Bingham townships on Aug. 7. Officials have indicated they’re concerned the vote could be just as close this time around — or may end up not passing at all.
In fact, the measure failed in Bingham Township in 2010 and carried by just 50 votes in Suttons Bay Township in 2010, providing a narrow majority in the twotownship fire district.
Concerns of Fire and Rescue Authority officials about the outcome of next month’s millage vote were heightened recently when the supervisor of Bingham Township, Ross Ard, wrote a letter to the editor of this newspaper that was critical of the authority and certain aspects of how the department is being managed.
This week, retired Bingham Township supervisor Harry Sanborn appeared at the regular monthly meeting of the Township Board and publicly praised Ard for raising a red flag. Sanborn said that while he appreciates the professional services provided by the department, he also questions whether taxpayers are getting a good fiscal return.
Just one month after the millage levy was approved in 2010, fulltime professional members of the Suttons Bay- Bingham Fire and Rescue department voted to join a union, the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF). Coming just weeks after voters’ assurance that funding would be in place through 2013, the unionization effort raised eyebrows across a county where no other fire and rescue department has ever been unionized.
Since then, negotiations between leadership of the Fire and Rescue Authority and representatives of the IAFF have gone slowly. As is customary in contract negotiations between labor and management, the discussions have been held behind closed doors. To date, no contract agreement has been reached — after some 20 months of negotiations.
Through that time, representatives of both the union and the fire authority have routinely declined to comment publicly on how the negotiations are going — except to say “progress is being made.”
Pressed for more information about the ongoing negotiations at this week’s regular monthly meeting of the Fire and Rescue Authority, board president Rich Bahle would only say that no one on his side of the negotiating table has done anything to delay ratification of a contract with the union.
“We’re very cognizant of the fact that the public is paying attention to how this process is going,” Bahle said. “Our preference would have been to have an approved contract in place well before the millage election so voters would understand exactly what they can expect before they vote. We wouldn’t even think of delaying this process for some kind of political advantage.”
In the past, campaign literature urging voters to support a millage renewal for the Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue Authority has made it clear that if funding was not approved, the department could be shut down. The department provides Advanced Life Support ambulance service on a 24/7 basis in the two townships and employs nine fulltime professional firefighters who are also either emergency medical technicians or paramedics.
The full-time employees are seeking to unionize. The department also employs a chief, Jim Porter, plus 26 “part-paid” volunteer firefighters and emergency medical personnel.
The department’s annual operating budget is around $1 million. A 2.3-mill property tax levy means the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000, or a market value of roughly $200,000, pays $230 per year to support the department.
Last year, property tax revenues brought in $365,040 from Bingham Township and $484,050 from Suttons Bay Township. Much of the department’s remaining revenue comes from insurance payments received for ambulance runs. Last year, the department made 38 fire runs, 563 ambulance runs and 171 combined fire and ambulance runs.
The Fire and Rescue Authority opted in 2011 to collect just 2.2-mills of the 2.3-mills authorized because savings had been achieved in the department’s budget through various belt-tightening measures. Officials said they are seeking the full 2.3-mill renewal next month as a hedge against unanticipated future expenses and because taxable values have been falling in some cases.
In their criticisms of the Fire and Rescue Authority, both Ard and Sanborn expressed concern that not enough is being done to get more money from the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians through the “2-percent” casino revenue sharing program. The tribe pays no property taxes on the Leelanau Sands Casino or any of its reservation land in Peshawbestown, but accounts for about 20-percent of the fire and rescue department’s call volume.
Bahle noted that in the past the tribe has contributed “significant” amounts of money to the department through 2-percent payments.
Fire and Rescue Authority officials have also noted that three years ago the department passed a rigorous set of tests conducted by the national Insurance Services Organization. “ISO ratings” in Suttons Bay and Bingham Township have improved in recent years to the point that many residents are now paying less in fire insurance premiums on their homes.
“There’s no question that Suttons Bay-Bingham Fire and Rescue provides a vital service to our community,” Sanborn commented at this week’s Bingham Township Board meeting. “In 2010, I voted ‘yes’ to support the department — even though the majority of voters here in Bingham Township turned down the millage proposal. I think that if voters in Suttons Bay Township had had any inkling that the department would be unionized, they would have turned down the millage, too.”
Sanborn said he was especially unhappy that the union negotiating process has been conducted in secret and that so little information about the process has been made available either by the fire authority or union officials.
“Well, the rest of us have something we can do that stays a secret, too,” Sanborn said. “It’s called voting.”