By Charles Sercombe
This week, we invited firefighter Andrew Oleksiak, who is the president of the Hamtramck firefighter union, to talk about his opposition to the city charter ballot proposals asking voters whether to eliminate the police and fire departments from the city charter.
Last week, Scott Klein, a former city official, explained his support for the proposals.
The Review: Why are you opposed to the charter revision proposals?
Andrew Oleksiak: First I would like to dispel some gross misinformation that is being spread around. The fire department does not have 36+ employees. We have 26 in fire suppression, a Fire Marshal, and a Fire Chief.
Last week’s interview with ex-councilman and Novi resident Scott Klein was really interesting. Almost all of the information provided was either false or pure speculation.
He has never been an advocate for community safety or the police or fire departments.
If he believes so strongly in these charter amendments, then why didn’t he pursue them when he was on the charter commission in 2002?
I hear him, and the other people pushing these amendments, spewing numbers for Detroit taking over fire services, and how they are going to cut pension costs, and I just shake my head. It’s complete speculation and made-up information. These people involved couldn’t be further off the pulse.
I have heard an incredible amount of false information about the number of fires and calls we have. I’ve provided the run data in an easy-to-read format, along with the run report breakdowns that we send to the state of Michigan and the federal government, to every member on city council.
Yet, I continue to hear false numbers based on what someone “said” or “told them.”
In 2017, we responded to 861 calls. 520 of those calls were in Hamtramck. 166 of those calls were for actual fires that required extinguishment. 92 were false alarms.
In 2018 we responded to 1013 calls. 544 of those calls were in Hamtramck.
191 of those calls were actual fires that the fire department was involved in extinguishing. 89 were false alarms.
In 2019, we responded to 979 calls. 555 of those calls were in Hamtramck. 169 of those calls were fires requiring extinguishment. 132 were false alarms.
Remember that the fire department responds to a variety of calls, including power lines down, motor vehicle accidents, people requiring removal from being trapped or stuck in things, car fires, house fires, garage fires, grass fires, carbon monoxide calls, fire alarms, gas leaks, etc.
It’s also important to point out, many of the calls to Detroit or Highland Park are nothing more than false alarms, or small incidents where the first arriving fire truck handles and calls off the rest of the companies that are on the way. Usually about 150-200 are working fires.
The Review: These charter proposals are being presented as a way to save money. Do you think there are ways to save the city money in providing police and fire services?
Oleksiak: First off, these charter revisions will not allow the city to save any money. Labor contracts supersede city charter. Firefighters and Police Officers in Michigan are not allowed to go on strike.
In exchange, we have P.A. 312, also known as binding arbitration. If there’s a labor dispute, a judge makes the decision, based on the municipality’s ability to pay, comparable departments and communities, industry norms and standards, etc.
Anyone who is saying these charter changes would allow them to control things like salaries and benefits, they are either lying or don’t have a clue what they are talking about.
This is about removing any guaranteed oversight over both the police and fire department. The main reason is so that the current city administration can try to create a Public Safety Department.
As of this week, Councilman Hassan is on video at the Islamic center of Hamtramck, telling people that the council has already hired the man for the job (Max Garbarino).
Hassan during the video says, “our fire department in Warren” (which is a pretty good indication he doesn’t in fact live here), is also telling people we will just have a part-time fire department.
Highland Park tried that as well. They have since moved away from that system, and have gone back to the same model that Hamtramck and other communities use.
Again, this isn’t an issue that the charter has anything to do with. This would be decided in court by a judge because of our labor contracts.
Southeast Michigan is facing a shortage of firefighters already. Departments that pay firefighters six figure salaries with amazing benefit packages are having difficulty filling positions. Fire academies are cancelling classes due to low enrollment. So I’m not sure his idea is rooted in any logic.
I’ll be the first to admit that the pension payments to MERS (the organization that administers our pension fund) is seriously hampering our city’s ability to be flexible on providing better services and benefits to current employees.
But people already on pension cannot legally have their plans changed unless we go through federal bankruptcy. Since 2013, the pensions have all been changed.
Those “big pension” numbers you see floating around on social media are certainly not anything our current employees will ever be seeing.
Our pensions have changed dramatically. We get less on our multiplier, pay more into the plans, and only get paid out on base pay only. You could make a million dollars in overtime and it doesn’t increase your pension any more.
For instance, the fire department budget for 2020 is around $3.7 million. Of that, $1,290,000 (34%) automatically goes to MERS. That’s a fixed number. We can’t really do anything about that. $1,857,880 (49%) is going to the salaries of 28 employees.
The third largest expense in the budget is healthcare: that is $259,000 (7%). Only 2% of the budget, or 86,000, is budgeted for overtime. So, there you have 92% of your budget accounted for.
The only way you can really save money is by laying off firefighters, otherwise known as reducing services. Even our Fire Chief Dan Hagen has been reduced to part time, and had his salary cut in half, in the midst of a global pandemic by the city. So there’s not even an argument to say that we have “administrative waste.”
Even laying off firefighters doesn’t bring about a huge savings. Based on court documents filed by the city for a recent arbitration, laying off two firefighters would only save $90,831 a year, not for each, but both positions.
If 10 firefighters were laid off, reducing our field staff from 26 to 16, our ability to provide any reasonable service would be decimated. Something that extreme would only save approximately $600,000. However, overtime would increase, so it’s likely to be far less than that.
It should be noted that Detroit and Highland Park will not be coming to help if we have firefighters laid off, public safety officers, or part time firefighters.
Sound like a scare tactic? Unfortunately, it’s not.
Real firefighters know this is a safety issue, and won’t put their own members in danger because of it. Detroit and Highland Park are paying very close attention to what’s going on here, and aren’t going to be willing to come here to do our jobs.
Just like we did to Highland Park in the early 2000’s when they cut their department and hired part timers. We stopped going there.
Remember what happened when Polish Market burned when we had guys laid off? Detroit showed up and stood there with their arms crossed and told our chief they weren’t getting involved in a labor dispute.
Lastly, the Public Safety platform hasn’t been proven to save any money. In most cases, it’s actually been proven to be more costly. So much so, that the state firefighters’ union was successful in getting Gov. Snyder’s administration to cancel all extra funding for cities converting to a public safety department.
Subsequently, his administration’s Emergency Managers stopped creating Public Safety Departments. There’s an increased cost to train police officers as firefighters, increased overtime, and when an officer gets injured, you don’t lose just a police officer, you lose a police officer and firefighter.
If the plan is to lay off, for instance, six firefighters, then turn around and hire six police or PSO officers (who are both more costly than firefighters), how does that save money?
The Review: Do you think these proposals are basically focused more on fire services than police services?
Oleksiak: They absolutely are.
The people pushing this proposal have openly said they want to eliminate the fire department and go to a Public Safety Department. In that model, more police are hired and firefighters are laid off. Then police officers are cross-trained to play dress-up as firefighters, but their primary role remains as police officers.
My concern is that removing the language for both departments leaves each department individually up for a lack of oversight that they currently have as per the charter.
The council could just decide to implement policy on issues they may not fully understand. Furthermore, every time the council changes, the policies and oversight can change.
The Review: The city is currently in deficit spending, and without finding significant savings in the budget, Hamtramck could find itself in another financial emergency, and have to have a state-appointed emergency financial manager take over – which would be the third time in the city’s history. Do you have any suggestions on how the city can save money in the budget?
Oleksiak: Of course, there are ways to increase revenue and reduce spending. The city should start by eliminating unnecessary positions.
For starters, eliminate the newly appointed director of safety and community services, Max Garbarino. Nothing personal to Max, but it’s a position the city has never had before, and it should be something department heads and the city’s legal team can handle. With his salary and benefit package, that would save approximately $115,000 a year.
The city shouldn’t be spending $225,000 on paving a parking lot for commercial businesses on Caniff.
The police department overtime budget needs to be put in check. Based on recent court documents from the city, in calendar year 2019, the police department spent $457,718 in overtime.
$129,443 of that was traffic overtime.
In contrast, the fire department spent $125,000 in overtime in that same period. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, the fire department only spent approximately $60,000 in overtime for the whole department.
There should be a cost recovery ordinance put in place for domestic violence and drunk driving court cases, that allows us to capture more money from the state. We currently receive none for those types of offenses.
The city budget is fluctuating on a daily basis. The budget projections are based on many things, such as the jail closing, GM retooling, and state revenue sharing.
The governor just announced that state revenue sharing wouldn’t be reduced as the city was planning. Is that message being openly conveyed to the public? No, it is not. Part of the “deficit spending” is created by fake expenses that haven’t happened yet.
The city supplied the courts with a five-year budget projection. Part of that included $1,000,000 in fire equipment in 2022; equipment we don’t need right now, and which was not requested by anybody from the fire department.
Another area was the “buildings and grounds” projection. That department went from $907,190 in 2020 to $1.3 million in 2021 and $1.6 million in 2022.
Now ask yourself, why? Are these things we “need,” or “want,” to have?
The City isn’t saying anything about the CARES Act that was passed by the state either. That grant will cover three months of payroll this year, which would provide around $1,000,000 in added revenue.
The Review: Would you be open to having a city commission explore alternative ways to provide police and fire services?
Oleksiak: I’m open to anyone exploring options. In reality though, I think we’ve explored our options numerous times already. It seems like people just keep trying to reinvent the wheel.
The Review: What would you say to those who advocate having Detroit take over fire services (provided that Detroit assigns firefighters at the current fire station)? Would that save the city money?
Oleksiak: I’d say that it’s already been explored, and it’s been proven to not really be a viable option. If the fire department is outsourced, the pension fund for the Hamtramck Firefighters becomes “closed.”
The City of Hamtramck would have to pay MERS about $30 million.
The City of Detroit has already given Hamtramck a bid for fire protection. With the amount that Detroit wanted to charge, and the amount the City of Hamtramck would owe to the pension fund, there is no real cost savings.
Plus, once you outsource the fire department, you’re at their mercy for future pricing. Not to mention, the plan I saw didn’t include any fire prevention initiatives, arson investigation, fire inspections, etc., which are all things our department currently handles.
The notion that we make more money than Detroit Firefighters is also false.
The base salary range for Hamtramck Firefighters (firefighter positions), depending on their seniority, is $42,867-$62,763, and for Detroit it’s $41,003-$59,417.
When it comes to salary, Hamtramck is slightly favorable, but the full benefits still have to be factored in.
Detroit provides all of its firefighters with full family health coverage, and Hamtramck only provides that benefit for its senior-most 16 firefighters.
The remainder only get single-person healthcare. Our firefighters have to pay 100% of the difference for family healthcare.
That alone makes a Detroit firefighter more costly. Detroit also gives its firefighters a better pension plan. Detroit firefighters routinely work a lot of overtime as well.
Hamtramck does not.
So in the end, Detroit is actually more expensive than our current system in Hamtramck. Which is why, when the state-appointed emergency financial manager was here last time, outsourcing wasn’t something that was done.
The Review: Some are concerned about the automatic aid agreement with Detroit and Highland Park. It appears Hamtramck makes more runs to those cities than here. Is that a fair bargain? Should Hamtramck get out of that agreement, or adjust it in some manner?
Oleksiak: I don’t want to spend too much time on this question, because it’s not really at all pertinent to the ballot initiative.
I work and live in the City of Hamtramck, and I don’t have any concerns about the plan. My property is more protected under this system, which brings more firefighters to a fire in Hamtramck than we used to get, and which costs the city basically nothing to participate.
Our insurance rates have also lowered because of the added assistance we get.
Our access to, and likelihood of receiving, high-value grants is greatly increased; training opportunities increase at no cost to the city, Detroit occasionally handles maintenance on our equipment free of charge, we pay nothing for maintenance and upkeep on communication equipment like radios and dispatch, they conduct our medical testing for users and their air packs every year for free, etc.
The SEMCOG study that the city had done in 2019 clearly stated that the auto aid agreement was highly beneficial to the City of Hamtramck, and clarified how, even though the numbers look lopsided, they really aren’t, given the actual exchange of resources.
We typically send one fire truck to Detroit with 3-4 firefighters. When they come here, they come with four firetrucks with 3-4 people on them, and we can get more by the press of a button.
Automatic aid is used in practically every community in the United States. We aren’t involved in some one-of-a-kind agreement.
Posted Oct. 9, 2020