Budget discussions are underway in the city of Muskegon, and the proposed budget under consideration by city commissioners calls for a 17 percent reduction in funding for the fire department.

The amount of the cut in dollars is $689,000.

The city must pass a budget by Saturday, July 1.

The Muskegon Fire Department has 34 full-time employees.

Muskegon's City Manager Frank Peterson says pension obligations in the fire department are unsustainable.

"That's where the cost center is growing out of control," Peterson said.

In recent years, the city was successful renegotiating savings with other departments. Peterson believes the existing fire department model needs improvements. City leaders, fire department command and union leaders have started searching for a new fire department model that may be better for the city.

"We want to spend some time looking at the models that work in communities similar to us, communities geographically close to us and then try to pick and choose what parts of their models we can implement here and what parts just don't fit," Peterson said.

The budget reduction may lead to staff reduction. But Peterson believes does not have to result in reductions in service levels in the city. If passed the cuts to the fire department will be phased in over six months.

"We are presenting a budget that we think by the end of the year will be accurate," Peterson said. "Give us six months to figure out what we want to do, propose it, get input on it, implement it, and then reap the savings in the second half of the year to meet this budget proposal."

The plan that's right for Muskegon may involve additional or new agreements with partner agencies. Or internal fire department changes like doing away with 24-hour shifts and replacing that policy with one that allows more staffing flexibility.

Peterson says at some point community members will be asked to help the city answer important questions about the fire department.

"What role does Muskegon Fire Department fill today and what role does it have to fill tomorrow," Peterson said.

On Thursday, June 15 the Muskegon Fire Department issued this statement to local media outlets:

The Muskegon Firefighters were disappointed to see the Muskegon City Manager chose to not speak with the Muskegon Firefighters but instead turned to the news media. We do not see how this behavior is helpful and we believe it puts our city in a negative light. We strongly argue against comments made by the city manager alleging the Muskegon Firefighter’s Union is fear mongering. The Muskegon Firefighters – Local 370 made a commitment to commissioners we spoke with at Tuesday’s city commission meeting to not argue the issue through news media. Despite repeated requests, we did not appear on camera for any news source and did not provide any comment for MLive. By contrast, The City of Muskegon City Manager has decided to go on air with a local news source to once again degrade the city firefighters.

Unfortunately, we feel we must now publicly respond. First and foremost, our firefighters are advocates for the safety of this community. We are extremely concerned over the proposed $918,000 budget cut. We question this drastic measure in spite of the city income tax, a tax which was passed years ago on a pledge of proper police and fire funding. We feel the additional proposed cuts on top of the years of declining staff could certainly impact the community’s safety and put lives at risk. The administration stated they are looking for a different “model”. We are a different “model”. Federal law allows firefighters to work 54 hours per week in 24 hour shifts. To make the point, police and firefighters are paid roughly the same wage. However, firefighters work 54 hours per week while police officers work 40. This is a huge savings for cities. A fact the city administration is clearly not aware of when they suggest scheduled staffing when they predict a fire will occur.

The Muskegon Firefighters remain interested in working this issue out with the city, just as we did in 2012. Back then, we worked with the city to implement a part time firefighter program to supplement full time staff. Although the program was abandoned in 2014, it is an example of working together to make long lasting solutions to keep our community safe. The Muskegon Firefighters would like to thank the community for the outpouring of support. We recognize that the City of Muskegon is a beautiful and growing city and we look forward to its bright future.

The Muskegon city commission is expected to vote on the proposed budget on June 27.

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