Public safety, swimming rescued with ballot measures

Imagine a city with limited police and fire response, or no places to swim or have fun.

That is what Port Huron residents were facing earlier this year when asked to approve additional funding for public safety and recreation.

Swimming and safety were on the line and voters reached into their pockets to rescue them.

Here's what the millage approvals mean for Port Huron.

The three-mill request on the public safety side was tied to personnel.

Port Huron Fire Chief Daniel Mainguy says his department needed to make significant reductions, and cutting staff would Port Huron Police will have extra officers patrolling next summer. Courtesy of Robert Hall Photographyhave been the only way to save that much money had the millage not passed, a sentiment echoed by Police Chief Jeff Baker. The fire department would have relied on attrition, leaving retirees and other vacancies unfilled.

"I can't not buy fuel for fire trucks. I can't not buy protective equipment. A dozen boxes of pens and paper weren't going to realize the savings we needed," Mainguy says.

He was one of many city supporters, like City Manager James Freed, who walked neighborhoods to encourage voters to approve the ballot question, signifying a passion and pride in their jobs.

It's likely that with fewer staff members, not all of the three fire stations would be able to stay open and manned on a 24 hour basis. With fewer locations, firefighters might take longer to respond to a fire, and of course, less manpower means smaller fires would take longer to control and contain.

"It would have been catastrophic on our operations because it's unsafe for the citizens, and it's also unsafe for firefighters," Mainguy says.

With the funds, all fire stations can remain open, and the positions of a retiree and a staff member who voluntarily resigned can be replaced. Mainguy says the department can sustain with three shifts of 11 response staff, a fire marshal, and his position.

Three additional police officers are joining on the force, which Baker says is "tremendous."

Fifty-five officers instead of 52 will leave each more time to follow-up and be proactive in crime prevention rather than running from call to call.

"Our citizens expect and deserve that level of service, and our officers want to deliver…now it's time to get to work!" Baker says.

Although the millage money can't be used until July, the police department is already recruiting, looking for exceptional candidates.

Port Huron's police are always training to improve public safety. Courtesy of PHPDThe ballot proposal estimated that the three-mill public safety approval will bring $1.6 million in its first of five years.

The five-year plan for the one-mill Port Huron parks and recreation tax should realize $546,676 in its first year.

Similar to fire and police, the recreation department is using millage money to keep its existing programs and responsibilities, enough to sustain, but not add much more. Some of these services were on the chopping block, and now residents don't have to worry about them disappearing.

The vote saved the city's two pools, which were at the greatest risk of being shut down.

Director Nancy Winzer says although pools are a huge asset, they are also very expensive. McMorran Place was also at risk of closure after already merging with parks and recreation last year in an effort to save money.

Winzer says the department significantly adds to the city and can help growth.

"It's a pretty important quality of life. When you move somewhere, what's the first thing you think of? You think about what there is to do, and if we don't have recreation here, then what's the push?" she says.

Officials say asking for the tax increase was absolutely necessary after already freezing many city wages and cutting programs throughout Port Huron. Simply put, administrators and department heads have been trying to save money and cut costs in ways that impact residents the least.

The millage approvals will make things easier, says Winzer, but they don't mean departments can rest easy. They will still have limited funds, even with this money, because of previous cuts.

Public safety and recreation must be funded by the city's general fund.

"A sizable chunk of the general fund is made up through revenue sharing from the state of Michigan, but unfortunately the state revenue sharing has decreased over the past several years," Baker says. "Coupled with a decline in property values, the income from tax has declined."

The majority of pensions and retiree health benefits come out of the same general fund, which Freed has cited as a huge reason for the city's financial situation.

The departments do their best to alleviate costs. The police and fire departments have tapped into grants, but those are mainly available for equipment, not personnel.

The fire department even secured a $800,000 ladder truck and a police/fire response boat through grants.

Recreation raises a good amount of its own money, and gets funding from its four township partners. Winzer says they are constantly searching for grants and sponsors and have just received one for Pine Grove Park.

"We'll continue to be very fiscally responsible and stretch our dollars because that's the way we work around here," Winzer says.

She, Baker, and Mainguy are thankful residents approved the proposals. About 56 percent of voters says "yes" to the recreation millage, and 61 percent sided with the police/fire approval.

"It's very humbling to see all of the people who worked for us for years and years come out and support," Winzer says. "I want to thank the residents because they see the value of what we're trying to do in Port Huron."

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