March 05, 2014 - By Meg Peters
Review Staff Writer
In order to fill more than 1,386 uncovered shifts, or 11,088 hours where there isn't a guaranteed firefighter on call in Orion stations, the Orion Township Fire Department is requesting an increase in their fire millage this August.
Currently taxpayers pay .98 mills on their property taxes to the fire department. The increase would be to 1.6 mills, or approximately a $120 increase per year for a $150,000 household with a $75,000 taxable value.
Orion Firefighters presented their research on the need for a fire mill increase Monday night at the township board meeting. Some were groggy-eyed after fighting a house-fire on Conklin since 11 p.m. the day before.
Their main goal seeking to increase millage is to increase staffing.
Fire Inspector Jeff Williams said it is very difficult to get all of shifts covered throughout the week. Full time firefighters are responsible for 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. every day. Afternoon and midnight shifts from 3 p.m. until 7 a.m. require the scheduling of paid-on-call firefighters, who could be with their family, working a second job, or in class.
Full-time firefighters do not work afternoons, nights, weekends or holidays.††
With 53 paid-on-call firefighters, 51 with a full-time job and 2 enrolled in college, 115 days of the year four Orion Township fire stations are empty.
"Paid on-call-firefighters have to go to station first and then go to fire scene itself," Fire Chief Bob Smith said. "When somebody is in covering that station, as soon as the tone drops they hop in the truck and go. You're getting a guaranteed 1oo percent response immediately arriving within two to three minutes," he said.
Supervisor Chris Barnett said the Orion Township Fire Department is the only department in the surrounding communities that have uncovered shifts.
In comparison, Independence Township, population 34,681, has 33 full-time firefighters. Groveland, with a population of 5,476 people, has three full-time fighters. Orion Township, with the second highest population in surrounding communities at 38,367 residents, has the second lowest amount of full-time staff, just over Groveland with the lowest population.
Their presentation compared Groveland, Addison, Brandon, Oakland, Oxford, Auburn Hills, Independence Township and Rochester Hills.
Rochester Hills generates about $5.8 million from their annual millage (what is an annual millage), and Independence generates roughly $4.7 million. Orion Township sits in between population-wise, and generates about $1.3 million.
†Since 1960 the fire department has operated on one mill, which decreased to .98 in 1970 with the Headlee Amendment and has remained consistent since then.
In 2008 the .98 millage raised approximately $1.8 million for the Orion Fire Department, and about $1.3 million in 2013 due to the decrease in property values.
"Proposal A is everybody's friend right now. In 2008 I paid $196.53 to the fire department, this year I'm going to pay $128. I'm paying about $75 less. We are never going to see it go up on the up side like it went down on the down side," Barnett said.
If the mill didn't increase, and property values remained relatively consistent over the next few years, Orion Fire Department would generate just under $1.4 million.
Fire Chief Smith said this January set the record amount of calls. January 2013 saw163 emergency calls where just a year later that number jumped to 210 for January 2014.
"Since our last increase in the 1960s we have more than doubled our population," Firefighter Chris Hagan said. "In regards to our call volume this is where the problem is," he said.
Both Hagan and Chief Smith said although the snow has been dumping, most of their calls are not weather-related.
"Our highest amounts of traffic are during un-staffed hours," Chief Smith said. "From 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. more than 150,000 vehicles pass through our town a day. That's over 1 million weekly," he said.
"Our peak times of home fire deaths are late at night where we don't have our full-time coverage," Hagan added.
Orion Township Trustees unanimously voted to pass the Orion Twp. Fire Department's request for the attorney to draft language for the millage increase.
The increase would both allow the fire department to continue their operations—Chief Smith's goal is to provide 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year coverage—and to begin updating aging equipment.
Their ladder truck is 38 years old. Jaws-of-life equipment and fire hoses are 25 years old. The township's first response and mutual aid engines are now 18.
"I had the pleasure of serving this community from November 1980 until November 1992 and all of the equipment was purchased in that time," previous Township Supervisor JoAnn Van Tassel said. "That puts it in to some perspective of how old this equipment is. Like many people who have been here for some length of time retired on a fixed income, I would ask you to seriously consider having two millage proposals. One for capital improvements and one for operations," Van Tassel said.
"I think you would have much greater success that way instead of lumping them together," she said.