Meridian debates fire station situation

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By RJ Wolcott and Kimberly Naghtin
Meridian Times staff writers

OKEMOS– Recently, the structure of the Meridian Township Fire Department has been up for debate. Residents have concerns with reducing the number of stations, while inspectors and board members point to economic problems with the current setup.

The issue is with the central fire station at 2150 Clinton St. in Okemos. The station is the oldest of the three in the township and inspectors say it might be beyond renovation.

At the Feb. 7 Meridian Township meeting, Fire Chief Fred Cowper discussed an inspection by a township real estate advisor. The advisor noted glaring problems with the central station. Cowper said these issues included not meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act, codes on ethics and professional conduct regarding the living arrangements at the station. Women don’t have separate bathrooms or living quarters at the station. Other problems included leaks, the possibility of mold, and problems with the electrical and heating systems.

The advisor was part of a task force set up to plan for restructuring the fire department. The task force, known as the regional fire study, set out to evaluate all facilities used by the department, as well as evaluating what would happen under realignments

Township Manager Gerald Richards discussed the regional fire study at the meeting and said that even though the study would not be completed until late April, he advised the board to begin planning a strategy.

Several board members questioned planning without information.

Mary Helmbrecht, township clerk, said that she knew how residents would react to the closing of central station. She said, “The residents have made it pretty clear, I think, that they’re not real fond of not having a third station.”

Treasurer Julie Brixie said that she believed the residents of the township deserved to vote on what to do rather than having the board decide. Brixie also said that the study would be vital to making an informed decision.

Richards said that he would have no problem putting the issue on the ballot but, “If the voters pass the bill, the township will do everything it can to make the building livable until we get a new one. If the voters turn it down, then I really think we are in a position to say we are going to function with two fire stations.”

Trustee Brett Dreyfus opposed bringing the issue to voters. “Sometimes an issue is very complicated and we as a board have the responsibility.” Dreyfus cited examples of when the township board made critical decisions with police and road issues.

Dreyfus then addressed the issue of the data. From testimony at previous meetings, it was clear, Dreyfus said, that people had their own opinions. People didn’t want to lose a fire station which was close to them. Dreyfus did say, however, that he would be in favor of opening the discussion with the public under a few conditions.

First, Dreyfus said that the cost of a new station needed to be presented to the public. Second, he wanted all of the information that was given to the board to be made available to the public. He said, “We need data, not emotions.” Third, Dreyfus asked that the map outlining response times across the township be shown to the public.

Reaction to the situation has been mixed. A local business owner who wanted to remain anonymous said that she believes it is a shame that the township might have to close the station. She said that there shouldn’t be any cuts to fire or police in Meridian.

William White, a resident and business owner, said that more data needs to be seen to make a decision. White said that it is important to keep the budget balanced. White also said that perhaps the township could staff the station better so it wouldn’t waste money driving the truck all around town in case of a call.

Cowper would not agree to comment on the situation or grant any access to the stations until after the decision at the next township meeting.

The board is set to address the issue in greater detail on March 20. The regional fire study which will help inform both the board and the public is scheduled to be finished in April.

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