Traverse City News and Events

City to Talk Fire Dept Staffing, Winter Salt Use, Meters/Splash Pad Contracts

By Beth Milligan | March 30, 2024

After Traverse City voters approved a millage in November to expand the Traverse City Fire Department (TCFD) to become the city’s primary ambulance provider, city commissioners will consider approving a staffing plan Monday to begin building out the department.
Commissioners Monday will also discuss the city’s use of winter road salt – a topic that’s proven contentious among some commissioners in the past – and vote on a rezoning request for the TCAPS Administration Building and on contracts to replace more downtown parking meters with smart meters and repair underground pipes at the Clinch Park splash pad.

Fire Department Staffing
The city is ready to move forward with building out the Traverse City Fire Department following the recent passage of a millage to fund expanding the department.

Voters in November approved making TCFD the city’s primary ambulance service, with roughly 65 percent in support and 35 percent opposed. The ballot proposal increases property taxes in the city by up to 1 mill ($1 per thousand dollars of taxable value) for a 20-year period, with the goal of providing funds “for fire department and emergency transportation services and facilities.” It is estimated that 1 mill will raise approximately $1,173,500 when first levied in 2024, according to the ballot language.

The plan requires hiring nine full-time firefighters and one full-time EMS administrator. TCFD Chief Jim Tuller told The Ticker in December it would likely “take a while” to bring that many new employees on and get everyone fully up and running. In a memo, Traverse City Human Resources Director Kristine Bosley said a city management team – which includes Tuller and other department heads – is recommending hiring new employees in “phases.” For the first phase, “the recommendation is for the city commission to approve the appropriation of funds for the first three of the nine fire suppression employees in the fiscal year 23-24 budget,” Bosley wrote. “The other positions will be brought forward as the phase progresses.”

Using a phased approach “allows for a manageable implementation process and ensures that resources are allocated efficiently as the city transitions to providing primary emergency transportation services,” according to Bosley. She added that once “implementation phases have been determined by the city management team, further discussion on additional personnel, facilities, and equipment will be brought forward to the city commission.”

In addition to more staff, the TCFD is purchasing two new ambulances. Tuller said in December he anticipates the first ambulance to be up and running within a year, with the second rig to follow some months after that. In the meantime, the city is evaluating short and long-term facilities opportunities for the growing fire department. That includes expanding into the city-owned building next to the fire department at 520 West Front Street. TCFD previously announced plans to move its administrative offices and training rooms into the building in 2025. The move will allow new locker room, shower room, and dorm space to be added to the existing fire department building. The reconfigured space will be able to accommodate firefighters of all genders. However, that expansion is part of a larger conversation with Grand Traverse County on shared city-county facilities, as the county services that are in the building now – including Michigan State University Extension and the Commission on Aging – would need to relocate to accommodate TCFD’s expansion.

Winter Salt Use
Purchasing road salt may seem like a straightforward municipal transaction, but the topic has proven to be a contentious one among city commissioners over the years. Past commissions at times have even blocked salt purchases, expressing concerns the city was spending too much on salt and using too much on roads, damaging the environment.

City staff, however – while exploring eco-friendly alternatives like Beet Heet and deploying software to help minimize salt usage – have emphasized that it’s crucial for public safety to have enough salt stocked to get through each winter season. Cities including Traverse City in Michigan must commit early – the deadline this year is April 3 – to a state purchasing program that helps lock in lower rates for communities by bulk buying salt. The city must order enough material upfront to get through the following season, as contract additions are not allowed later in the season.

Commissioners Monday will vote on purchasing 600 tons of salt for early delivery and another 600 tons of backup salt. The city has approximately 1,000 tons of salt on hand now. City Streets Superintendent Mark Jones explained that the goal is to try keep an inventory amount of approximately 2,000 tons, “a conservative estimate based off a bad winter’s average.” With the possibility more salt could still be used this season, and not knowing what next year’s winter will look, Jones said the city needed to order enough now to ensure it has enough to get through another season. The city’s salt storage barns are “built to house salt long term and have enough room to potentially store a couple seasons of inventory,” he added.

If approved by commissioners, the final purchase price for the salt order will be determined once the state goes through its bidding process, with the lowest bid price typically locked in by August.

On the consent agenda at Monday’s meeting...
> City commissioners will vote to approve a request from Boardman Building LLC to rezone the TCAPS Administration Building on Webster Street from R-2 (Mixed Density Residential District) to D-2 (Development District). The request, recently approved by city planning commissioners, would allow the building to be preserved and a new housing project to move forward on the site. According to City Planning Director Shawn Winter, the property’s current R-2 zoning “does not reflect the scale or the current and historic use of the existing building. D-2 zoning would better fit the existing structure and proposed uses in order to feasibly maintain the current structure.”

> Commissioners will vote to approve a purchase order for up to $110,000 to continue replacing downtown parking meters with smart meters. The Traverse City Downtown Development Authority – which manages parking for the city – already replaced 297 on-street meters in 2021 and another 354 meters in 2023, all of which were in the downtown area. The next phase would replace 346 meters, including “most of the remaining on-street meters in the downtown area, on-street meters outside of the downtown, Munson Medical Center area, and single-space metered lots,” according to DDA Transportation Mobility Director Nicole VanNess. The contract will also include up to $72,000 annually for monthly recurring software and communication fees, with funds for both the meters and software to come from the Auto Parking Fund.

> Finally, commissioners will vote to spend up to $101,126 for pipe repairs at the Clinch Park splash pad. The city has made several improvements to the splash pad in recent years, including efficiency and automation upgrades. While making some of those improvements, previously unknown breaks in the piping below the splash pad were discovered. Repairing those breaks is necessary to “achieve the goals of automatic operations, reduced water use, weather sensor gauge accuracy, and for minimal staff intervention,” according to Parks and Recreation Superintendent Michelle Hunt. The repairs are expected to take place prior to Memorial Day and will be covered by funds left over from a settlement the city received in 2016 from the contractor that built the splash pad, which the city blamed for a number of design defects.

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