Traverse City News and Events

TC Fire Department to Expand to West Front Building; County Services to Relocate

By Beth Milligan | Dec. 19, 2023

Thanks to recent voter approval of a millage to expand the Traverse City Fire Department (TCFD) to become the city’s primary ambulance provider, the department is in need of more space. TCFD Chief Jim Tuller recently notified Grand Traverse County – in a letter that county commissioners will discuss Wednesday – that the fire department intends to expand into the city-owned building at 520 West Front in January 2025. That starts a ticking clock for county services in the building – including Michigan State University Extension and the Commission on Aging – to relocate, and could also open up discussions about shared county-city space at the Law Enforcement Center on Woodmere Avenue.

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 millage will shake up how emergency services are handled in the city, effectively eliminating the current system where both TCFD and Mobile Medical Response (MMR) serve as EMS providers. Instead, the millage will pour more funding into TCFD for ambulance services, allowing the department to ramp up emergency response efforts by purchasing two new ambulances and hiring 10 additional staff. The city will then phase out its contract with MMR, leaving TCFD as its sole provider for ambulance services.

Tuller tells The Ticker he anticipates the first ambulance to be up and running in approximately a year, with the second rig to follow some months after that. TCFD is actively recruiting now to bring on more personnel to eventually meet its goal of 10 new hires, though “it’ll take a while” to fill that many positions and get everyone fully up and running, Tuller says.

In the meantime, the city is evaluating its “short and long-term facilities opportunities” for the expanded fire department, according to Interim City Manager Nate Geinzer. He says the “most expeditious short-term opportunity” is to expand into the city-owned building next to the fire department at 520 West Front Street (pictured). TCFD plans to move its administrative offices and training rooms into the building on January 1, 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.

Tuller, Geinzer, and County Administrator Nate Alger met in recent weeks to discuss the city’s expansion plans ahead of Tuller sending formal notification to the county on December 7, starting a ticking clock for MSU Extension and the Commission on Aging to relocate. There have been discussions dating back to at least 2015 about the county potentially relocating those services with TCFD running out of room. That scenario came up again recently in a joint city-county facilities master plan process that recommends relocating all county services not required to be in city limits to the county’s LaFranier Road campus, building a new city police department on Woodmere Avenue, and significantly renovating and expanding the Governmental Center.

However, those plans are for the future and have not yet been finalized nor adopted by city and county commissioners. Complicating matters today is the lack of a formal lease for the county’s use of 520 West Front Street. Former City Treasurer/Finance Director Bill Twietmeyer previously explained the city and the county have an arrangement dating back to 1984, but no actual money changes hands. It's essentially a 'space for space' agreement giving the Traverse City Police Department space in the Law Enforcement Center on Woodmere Avenue for county space on West Front Street, Twietmeyer said at the time.

Alger says that’s his understanding of the arrangement too, and notes that at one time the city was supposed to convey 520 West Front Street to the county in exchange for city space in the Law Enforcement Center. “So it would have been a county building,” he says. “But nothing has ever become of those agreements, and they were never enacted, so we’re trying to determine what agreement is in place. That’s a big part of it.”

Alger has notified both the Commission on Aging and MSU Extension about the need to vacate by January 2025. A potential new location has already been identified for the Commission on Aging, though Alger declined to give the address, noting a partnering organization still needs to approve the agreement. And while it’ll ultimately be up to MSU Extension to find a new home, Alger says that with two county employees working for that department, county administrators feel “we should be looking with them and on behalf of them to find a location. We’re committed to them.”

In addition to updating county commissioners Wednesday, Alger says a likely next step is for city and county attorneys to meet and work out the terms of both municipalities’ property interests at 520 West Front Street and the Law Enforcement Center. “We need to understand what the agreement means, what notices are required, and what our obligations are pursuant to receiving notice (to vacate),” Alger says. Geinzer agrees that cleaning up and formalizing agreements for shared property spaces is a key next step for both entities.

“There’s a lot of history between the city and county,” he says. “Hopefully it’ll continue to be a collaborative discussion. I think they understand the need and logic (for TCFD to expand), and we can work together to find solutions.”

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