Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series of in-depth reporting by ELi on the City of East Lansing’s budget for Fiscal Year 2024. The first covered the police department’s budget.
Michigan State University is footing more of the cost of operating East Lansing’s Fire Department, which provides both firefighting and emergency medical services throughout the city, including campus.
The increase of funding from MSU plus more state funding and progress in funding the pension debt are all adding up to an improved bottom line for the city’s finances where this aspect of public safety is concerned.
As part of the ongoing discussions about the proposed Fiscal Year 2024 budget, ELFD Chief Dawn Carson gave a presentation at the Tuesday, April 25, City Council budget work session, giving insight to how the department would like to utilize resources going forward. (See her slides here.)
Among other highlights, Carson requested more money for training, expressed a desire to improve emergency management and requested less money this year, with the total ELFD budget dropping from about $13.4 million this fiscal year to a projection of about $11.7 million for FY24. (FY24 will run from July 2023-June 2024.)
Carson’s presentation was supplemented by a five-page “Fire Operations and Fire Prevention” summary in the budget materials. ELi has extracted that presentation and readers can find it here.
ELFD puts out a lot of fires – but that’s not all the department does.
To open her presentation, Carson gave an overview of some of the services ELFD provides.
The fire suppression division received about 430 more calls for service in 2022 than 2021, according to a chart presented. Last year, fire runs peaked at just over 700 in October.
East Lansing’s Emergency Medical Service (EMS) is a part of ELFD, with all East Lansing firefighters also serving as paramedics. A chart shown during the presentation revealed there have been over 1,400 EMS runs so far this year, with levels coming back up from unusual lows during the height of the pandemic when many students left town and many events were canceled.
As the chart shows, EMS runs this year have been fairly similar for the past two years. Like fire runs, EMS runs peak in September and October because fall is when students tend to party more and hundreds of thousands of visitors in total come to East Lansing for football games.
According to the materials in the proposed budget, ELFD is projecting a substantial increase in FY24 in terms of “ambulance services and services to MSU,” with an expected increase of about $118,000, or 4% compared to this fiscal year.
This “can be fully attributed to an increase in services to MSU,” according to the proposed budget. “The City’s Police Department assists in staffing MSU football games while the Fire Department assists in staffing football and other athletic events as well as special events such as graduations. New contract terms between the Fire Department and MSU allowed for an increase in the billable rate MSU is charged to not only account for the staff time of the City’s employees, but to also factor in the cost of having the equipment on hand at the events.”
MSU is expected to pay almost $600,000 into the fire budget this year for services provided at special events and for fire protection.
Still, the cost of providing emergency services to MSU, its students, and its visitors is much higher than that, and the university does not pay property taxes due to its nonprofit educational status, which means it does not pay taxes into East Lansing’s public safety systems (except indirectly now through the income tax on its employees).
For many years, the state failed to reimburse East Lansing for the costs of providing fire and ambulance service to MSU. But starting in FY20, the state began fully funding what East Lansing was owed under Public Act 289. In FY24, PA 289 is anticipated to bring over $3.7 million into East Lansing’s fire services budget.
Besides providing rescue, firefighting and emergency medical services, ELFD also provides educational services to the public. This includes visiting every fraternity and sorority in East Lansing to teach them about fire safety.
The department also does investigations and inspections of potential fire risks. This means checking restaurants, mobile food vendors and high-risk homes in the city to ensure they are safe.
Carson also told Council the department has a smoke and CO2 detector program that will distribute devices to residents that request them for free.
Carson said department personnel need more training.
Providing more training for staff will be key going forward. Carson said there used to be state funds to provide training, but they now need to rely more on the city’s budget. She specifically mentioned training for confined space, trench rescue, rope rescue, structural collapse, tower rescue and emergencies involving hazardous material.
“In order to keep up [with] all of these expected abilities, we are going to start sending people to more classes,” Carson said.
Carson said many ELFD members with training are promoted and others just leave the department naturally. That means new cycles of training are needed.
“Some of our tech people are starting to be captains and deputy chiefs and those are not the people that are going to go in and do the business, they’re the ones supervising it,” she said. “We’re losing our people just from promotions and attrition.”
Overall, ELFD is looking to add just one more position – that of a second fire inspector – in FY24. While the police department’s staff census is rising steadily, ELFD’s is holding pretty steady, as this comparison chart by ELi shows:
ELFD is looking to enhance emergency communications.
Carson said ELPD is relying on Ingham County and Lansing for support with EMS and the department would like to enhance the division, specifically with regard to communications.
Mirroring the police chief’s presentation that same evening, Carson proposed that ELFD have a blended communications manager who would be shared with ELPD. The position would allow the departments to hold joint educational events and help with outreach and risk reduction.
Interim City Manager Randy Talifarro, who previously served as East Lansing’s fire chief, said the blended position could help establish a social media presence and disseminate information requested by the community – like what to do if there is an active shooter or tornado.
Talifarro said the shooting at Michigan State University exposed the need for the new communications position. After the tragedy, the city communications department was flooded with requests for interviews and information and it was very challenging to keep up with the influx of work.
The FY24 budget request’s impact on the city’s general fund is down from FY23.
ELFD’s projected net impact on the general fund in FY24 would be $5,341,145 if the budget request is approved. That is the shortfall between the amount of money ELFD anticipates it will bring in from various revenue sources (like PA 289 and charges for ambulance services) and what it will cost to run the department.
This projected net impact on the general fund in the FY24 budget request is about $2.2 million less than the FY23 amended budget request. That’s largely because, despite staffing levels going up by one person, personnel services are expected to drop by about $1.8 million, or almost 16%.
Why? “Personnel services” includes pension costs and the fire department is paying less into the pensions as the income tax makes up for more of that debt. Additionally, as East Lansing manages to get a better handle on that debt, the required annual contribution has been going down.
The budget request for FY24 is now about in line with what it cost to run the department two years ago, when the pandemic greatly reduced the number of runs here.
Councilmember George Brookover asked Carson if she could do everything she wanted to with this budget.
“I believe so,” Carson responded.
East Lansing’s City Council is expected to vote to pass the proposed FY24 budget on May 23.