BENTON HARBOR – It took about five months, but Benton Harbor's police and fire unions finally reached an agreement for cops and firefighters to do both jobs. The city's emergency financial manager says it will eventually make the city self-reliant. The combined public safety effort plays a big part in helping the city overcome a more than $1 million deficit.
This agreement allowed Benton Harbor to balance the 2012 budget.
Both sides said reaching an agreement took a lot of give and take. There have also been several layoffs and some turnover in the past year or so. For example: both the police and fire departments had union presidents who were very outspoken against Emergency Financial Manager Joseph Harris’ original public safety proposal, but now both outfits have new union presidents in place.
“We all finally came together and realized that all of our differences didn’t outweigh the importance of the community,” said Roger Lange, Benton Harbor police chief and public safety director.
All 18 police officers on the road will also be trained as firefighters – carrying EMS and firefighting gear in their squad cars. Their new title will be public safety officers. Only one of the city’s four full-time firefighters will go through police training. The others will stay at the station when they’re on duty, ready to respond with proper trucks and equipment.
Even though they finally came to a working agreement, there’s still some concern about the learning curve of the forces working together.
“What it boils down to is those of us who have been on the fire department, and I'm sure it's the same of the police division, those of us who have been together for years, we have kind of an unspoken word when we're on a scene together and we don't have to communicate as much. We know what to expect of each other,” said TJ Robertson, Benton Harbor Fire Union president.
Bringing cops and firefighters together helped the city cut the $1 million budget deficit in several ways:
- Laying off a total of nine police officers and five firefighters
- Training police officers to be firefighters while they were already scheduled to work, thus eliminating overtime
- Changing contract language
Union contracts for both the fire and police departments used to say neither could have part time employees. But the new agreement says both departments can hire part timers, saving the city money.
“It eliminates the overtime,” explained Harris. “So instead of paying time-and-a-half for someone who's off, [the city will be able to] pay a part timer.”
Two years ago, Benton Harbor's fire department was spending $150,000 on overtime. Bringing on the new part-time employees will help cut that amount drastically.
Under the new agreement, all firefighters and police officers will actually get a pretty significant pay raise. Firefighters are getting a 10 percent raise because they are taking on a larger role to help the city’s code enforcement department and police officers are getting a 7 percent pay hike. Police officers who cross train to also become firefighters (public safety officers) will get a 17 percent raise.
People who live in Benton Harbor will see the new public safety squad cars on the streets in two months. The city hopes to have all 18 of those police officers trained as firefighters/public safety officers by 2013.