Traverse City News and Events

Staffing Debate Likely To Dominate City Budget Discussion

By Beth Milligan | May 23, 2022

Traverse City’s proposed upcoming budget will appear on the city commission agenda for the fourth week in a row tonight (Monday), with discussion likely to focus on the city manager’s recommendation to hire a second assistant city manager and other key employees but not a deputy planner or three firefighters requested by the Traverse City Fire Department (TCFD).

City Manager Marty Colburn is recommending adding four new city employees as part of the proposed budget for fiscal year 2022-23, which begins July 1. Those positions include a second assistant city manager, a patrol officer, a social worker, and a utility services engineer. Colburn is also recommending increasing one position – a cemetery administrative assistant – from part-time to full-time. Four other new positions requested by city departments are not recommended to be included in the upcoming budget, however, including three firefighters and a deputy planner/community development planner.

After commissioners discussed the draft $20.9 million general fund budget at multiple meetings this month, Colburn wrote a new memo for tonight’s study session justifying his recommendation to add some staff positions but not others. “Early in my appointment as city manager, I was asked if we could do more projects faster than previously. My response was yes,” he wrote. “Over the past six years staff has sped up processing means and proceeding with implementation of accelerated infrastructure investments. The city manager currently has eleven staff members reporting directly to (him)…with the administrative workload increasing, an additional assistant city manager was requested to help meet the city manager’s efforts to achieve identified city commissions goals and objectives.”

Colburn said that several departments would be reassigned to both assistant city managers for direct reporting. “Additional projects we are proposing would be able to receive more attention to support the processes required to work through for effective implementation,” he wrote. He added that “driven by accelerating projects, Traverse City is consistently evolving,” with new development opportunities, investments in operational facilities, parks, transportation, housing, utilities, recreation, and environmental responsibility all falling in the city’s lap. Colburn said he planned to “expand and balance the level of administrative responsibility” in the city by sharing oversight with two assistant city managers.

Colburn said that adding a patrol officer and a social worker would help increase community safety and address issues of homelessness, addiction, and other challenges facing vulnerable populations, particularly in the Eighth Street corridor near Safe Harbor. “An additional patrol officer...would work directly on problem-solving with community partners much more than just enforcement, working side by side with community groups to address specific problems and city commission goals…we will have this officer work with the new social worker on addressing opioid and addiction, homelessness and problem-solving as we work directly with the (Eighth Street) neighborhood,” he wrote. The new social worker, meanwhile, will “provide crisis intervention, conflict resolution, short-term counseling, case management, and community outreach, while also working closely with the Traverse City Police Department and across other departments in order to assist with non-crime related situations including, but not limited to mental health, substance use, and housing-related issues,” Colburn continued. He noted that the city has applied for a $60,000 Rotary Charities grant to help fund the patrol officer position and has received a three-year Michigan State Police grant – or $70,000 annually – to help fund the social worker position.

When it comes to adding a utility services engineer, Colburn pointed out that that the city has applied for funding to cover up to $46 million in water and wastewater improvement projects over the next five years. “The infrastructure projects are very labor-intensive and include many annual requisite milestone deadlines,” he wrote. Colburn said a new department employee would be funded by water and sewer enterprise funds and allow “projects to progress as best possible and (maintain) compliance with all federal and state water and wastewater treatment regulations.” Increased customer service and administrative demands at Oakwood Cemetery also justify the increase of a part-time assistant to full-time there, according to Colburn, who noted the city aims to update record-keeping at the cemetery from an “antiquated and unnecessarily time-consuming” hand-mapped system to digital gravesite accounting.

But it’s the staff positions Colburn is not recommending funding that have already caused backlash from some members of the public and local firefighters. Colburn explained in his memo that a requested deputy planner is not recommended at this time because the city is in the process of “hiring several planning groups to support the city planner on projects such as the master and mobility plans” and recently added a dedicated full-time administrative assistant to the department. Colburn is also not recommending adding three firefighters requested by the TCFD. He said both the deputy planner and firefighters could be justified in future budgets, but are not recommended now due to “fiscal constraints.” He also cautioned that the TCFD request “is not in concert” with current union agreements and that Colburn was advised by the city’s labor attorney “to not discuss these items in an open meeting.” The city manager added: “The labor attorney will provide an update regarding the collective bargaining process to the city commission at its meeting on June 6.” That is the date on which city commissioners are scheduled to vote to approve the budget, as required by the city charter.

Colburn’s decision not to include the firefighting positions in his budget prompted multiple public comments last week in support of boosting TCFD staffing, as well as criticism from the Traverse City Firefighters Local 646 union. Chief Jim Tuller said he was requesting the additional staff because “it is not safe to continue the practice of sending a fire engine on an emergency call with only a driver through our city. Over the past few years, the increased use of the many forms of non-motorized mobility, traffic calming applications implemented, the increase in motor vehicle traffic, as well as other factors, present a challenge to the safety of our citizens and our fire personnel on a daily basis.” To offset the risk, TCFD requested to hire one additional firefighter for each of the department’s three suppression shifts in the 2022-23 budget. That will ensure at least two employees deploy in response units “to reduce the chances of an accident while traveling to an emergency and also increase the level of service provided once the unit arrives on scene,” according to Tuller.

Traverse City Firefighters Local 646 have encouraged their members as well as the public to show up to commission meetings and urge commissioners to include the new positions in the upcoming budget, a topic that will likely be revisited again tonight. “Without these positions our City Fire Engine 1 will be responding with a single fire captain all summer. We are genuinely concerned about the unnecessary risks associated with this predicament,” the union wrote. With TCFD seeing an increase in emergency calls from 2,932 in 2020 to 3,344 in 2021 – nearly three-fourths of which were in the emergency medical services/rescue category – the union argued increased staffing is vital to community safety. “The status quo is broken,” Local 646 wrote. “Traverse City’s Fire/EMS service is compromised and vulnerable for reoccurring disparity…we can no longer operate safely with our daily staffing level.”

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