Judge upholds fire millage petitions
December 8, 2011 PLYMOUTH EAGLE.
The Citizens Action Group of Plymouth was successful with a second lawsuit in Wayne County last week.
Judge Wendy Baxter ruled that the Citizens Action Group had, in fact, submitted the necessary petition signatures to place a dedicated tax assessment to fund the fire department on the Feb. 28 ballot.
Members of the Plymouth Township Board of Trustees, who have opposed the proposal to place the issue before voters, met in a special closed session last Sunday but did not indicate what action they planned to take in light of the court decision.
The board members were scheduled to meet again Tuesday evening in a regular session, but the outcome of that meeting was unknown at press time this week.
Baxter scheduled another hearing on the matter for yesterday morning, pending the actions of the elected officials following her ruling.
Township officials have claimed, and township attorney Tim Cronin argued in court, that the petition language signed by nearly 4,000 residents, was misleading and unclear. The petitioners are seeking a five-year 1-mill dedicated assessment to fund the fire department. Cronin argued in court that dedicated millages are unlimited for operations and maintenance have no time limit.
Retired Circuit Court Judge Marvin Stempien represented the citizens group in both law- suits. He told the judge that the ballot issue is a, “constitutional right of the people who want to have some input into their service for fire protection and emergency medical service.”
The first lawsuit of the citizens’ group in front of judge Michael Sapala last week was unsuccessful when the judge told Stempien that he had not presented credible evidence that the group had, in fact, submitted the required 10 percent of property owners’ signatures to the township on petitions seeking the election.
The judge ruled at that time that the Citizens Action Group hadn’t answered critical questions regarding the authority of the township clerk to act on the petitions the group had submitted.
Stempien said after that defeat that he would re file and go back into court with the evidence the judge said was missing.
Stempien did so immediately and filed a motion for a hearing, which was granted. Baxter ordered a hearing on the matter for Dec. 1. and authorized a deposition of Plymouth Township Clerk Joe Bridgeman, who had prepared some of the charts and information used by the township to disallow some of the 3,500 signatures the group had submitted previously.
Bridgeman, who appeared voluntarily at the hearing, was questioned by both Stempien and Cronin during his deposition.
In her ruling, Baxter agreed that the township had, in fact, violated the rights of the electorate in failing to honor the petitions submitted asking for an opportunity to vote on a dedicated fire millage but did not find the board guilty of neglecting any ministerial act.
The proposed a 1-mill tax would restore the fire department to full staffing levels and maintain the current EMS and Advanced Life Support services which would be lost if the proposed reorganization plans of township officials are implement- ed. Current plans reportedly include even further reductions to the force and the closing of Fire Station No. 2. This would also abrogate the current Mutual Aid pacts with surrounding communities, according to a fire department union spokesman and could decertify the Advanced Life Support citizens have been provided.
The dispute between the citizens group and the township officials was prompted by the projected $900,000 loss in funding to the fire department budget, caused by the withdrawal of the City of Plymouth from the joint fire service agreement. The City of Plymouth has now contracted with Northville for fire service which will begin in January. The citizens group claimed in their court filings that township officials attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate the fire department completely by going to Canton and Livonia for services. Both those negotiations failed.
The township board members have lowered the standards for volunteer firefighters, while increasing the hourly rate, too, and volunteers can now live 15 miles out- side the township borders and do not need EMS training, steps that members of the citizens group said pose a threat to the safety of township residents.
Firefighters union spokesmen have said the union has offered more than $300,000 in cuts and proposed the township board allow the EMS units to transport patients to the hospital, which would allow the township to bill Medicare and private insurance carriers for the service. Plymouth Township is the only area fire department which cannot transport patients, but must wait for a private ambulance service based in Ann Arbor.
The township also refused a two-year $880,000 federal grant for fire services last April.