Despite Herculean efforts retain its autonomy as a fire department after being in existence for 175 years, the city of Pontiac Firefighter’s Union Local 376 voted Wednesday, Dec. 28 to ratify an agreement involving a department takeover by the Waterford Fire Department.
“As of Feb. 1, 2012 the Pontiac firefighters will now work for Waterford and there is a process by which they will move from here to there,” said Pontiac Emergency Financial Manager Lou Schimmel.
Pontiac firefighters had been given a Tuesday, Jan. 3 deadline to turn in their employment applications to Waterford Township.
“They will be given preferential treatment to be accepted — all will be accepted unless a background check comes back indicating something otherwise,” Schimmel said.
According to the agreement, the top 13 Pontiac firefighters will be granted the opportunity to take early retirement rather than working until their 25th year. The 44 remaining firefighters are eligible for employment with Waterford Township. The city of Pontiac will grant them one-time bonuses of up to $15,000.
Should any firefighter be laid off or terminated by Waterford within a three-year period, except for in cases of misconduct, Pontiac will pay that firefighter one year’s salary.
“There’s no intention to lay off, but it’s a safeguard for these firefighters,” Schimmel said.
The city of Pontiac also agreed to resolve outstanding grievances.
Lastly, four of the firefighters hired by Waterford will join the department as higher ranking officers. According to Dave Hensel, president of the Waterford Professional Firefighters Union Local 1335, these firefighters are well deserving of the titles.
“We’re for that,” Hensel said. “They are a very talented bunch of firefighters, some of the best in the state.”
Though Hensel lauds Pontiac’s firefighters, he said there is concern among Waterford union members as to how the transition will be brought to fruition.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” Hensel said. “It’s a big transition and it’s like creating a new department. We have a short time to integrate 50 guys — that’s like doubling our department.”
Schimmel had presented the Pontiac firefighters union with a formal written offer on Dec. 22 to voluntarily agree to be absorbed by the Waterford department or be terminated.
The proposed 10-year fire service contract agreement between Waterford and Pontiac comes on the heels of the city facing a $12.5 million budget deficit. The measure is expected to save Pontiac a minimum of $3 million annually, including through the outsourcing of EMS services.
“The whole package will save us at a minimum $3 million,” Schimmel said. “EMS will be handled by a separate contract with Star Ambulance, which already backs up the firefighters in Pontiac.”
Waterford Township is expected to receive $6.2 million annually, of which about $4 million will be doled out to fire services. Waterford will profit roughly $2.2 million.
“It’s a tough situation for everybody, but these are tough times and everyone is doing what they have to to take care of their families,” said Waterford Township Fire Chief Dennis Storrs. “Everyone has mixed emotions and I know all the firefighters will find a way to make it work because our job is to serve.”
Hensel said the Waterford union’s contract will need to be re-evaluated given the change.
“We don’t have provisions in our own contact on how this will run, from vacation to health care changes to shift changes,” Hensel said. “We plan on having meetings over the next two weeks.”
The sparring between Pontiac and its firefighter union had been ongoing for weeks. Union officials argued that their proposal would have saved the city more money than Waterford providing the city with fire services, and estimated that figure at $3.1 million annually. However, Schimmel said that proposal did not factor in significant costs.
“There was not as much detail in their proposal and they ignored a lot of expenses like the purchasing of fire engines and supplies — it wasn’t an apples-to-apples proposal,” Schimmel said.
The Waterford Township Board of Trustees is expected to take action on the fire service contract at its Monday, Jan. 9 meeting.
Pontiac Firefighters Union Local 376 President Damon Harney did not respond to calls for comment prior to press time.