Controversy over proposed UH-SH fire department merger demonstrates difficult realities of push for regionalism
On Feb. 1, the cities of University Heights and Shaker Heights issued a joint press release stating that the two cities would create a Council of Governments (COG) with a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which would lay the groundwork for an agreement to consolidate the cities’ fire and EMS departments. The press release gave several dates when a completed agreement would be presented to the councils of both cities for public comment and approval, but it turns out that the timeline in the release was wishful thinking.
Soon after the release was issued, John Novosielski, president of University Heights Firefighters Local 974, lashed out at University Heights Mayor Susan Infeld and Shaker Heights Mayor Earl Leiken, accusing them of having already made the decision to merge departments without union or public input. “It appears that the decision to ‘merge’ departments had already been made by the mayors, and that everything else was a dog and pony show,” said Novosielski in a press release.
Mayor Infeld disagrees. “The MOU is the beginning of the process, not the end,” said Infeld. “This is not final and could change a lot.”
Infeld said that the MOU is a nonbinding agreement that formalizes the conversations the two cities have had for two years. “Members of council have been aware of the conversations I have had with Mayor Leiken and are familiar with the MOU,” she said. “I believe that the presentation of the MOU gives Mayor Leiken and me an opportunity to be honest and transparent and show the level of detail of what we talked about. Besides talking about the big picture, we also talked about very specific things.”
“In my postcard to University Heights residents about the Town Hall meeting, I advertised that the meeting was about a consolidation or merger,” said Infeld. “State law considers it a consolidation, but I’m not sure that most people understand what that means. I wanted to make sure people understood the importance of this concept so that they would come to a public meeting to learn more.”
State law also states that employees in a consolidated department could have only one public employer. “In the MOU we talked about the employees of the smaller entity being laid off and rehired by the larger one,” said Infeld. “This is legal terminology and a technicality since those employees would be hired one minute later by the other city. I would not agree to a plan that laid off our firefighters. I want to assure our employees that they would be employed.”
Infeld admits that a detailed timetable in the MOU may have alarmed people. “But we are off the timeline as it was presented,” she said. “We have to do a lot more talking.”
Infeld said that she has met with the executive board of local 974 several times since the process began in order to keep them informed and answer their questions. “My last meeting with the fire union was on Jan. 29. At that meeting, I repeated a request I made to them in our recent meetings: to provide me with a list of things they would like to see happen with a consolidation, focusing mainly on their work conditions.” Infeld said she and members of city council spent time with the fire department, per the union’s request, to learn more about what they do prior to the Feb. 4 council meeting.
Novosielski claims that the Jan. 29 meeting was the first that he has had with the mayor. “I don’t know what meetings she’s referring to,” he said. “She has answered questions for us. [That] was the first meeting she had with us, and it was just to reemphasize the city’s position on the merger.”
“We care about the city we provide service for,” said Novosielski. “We’ve been functioning wonderfully well for over 71 years. Now there is this theory of a merger. In a life and death service, you don’t want to play around. They have theories and we have facts. If you don’t have the same amount of people you won’t get the same amount of service.”
University Heights has held four public meetings on the concept of consolidation. Two occurred before the final report was released—on May 15 and Oct. 15. The report was released on Oct. 29, and two more public meetings were held in University Heights on Dec. 4 and Jan. 10. Shaker Heights also held public meetings on the topic.
Infeld said she is open to more cities becoming involved if a successful consolidation between the two cities is completed. “We started talking with Shaker because we have two fire houses that are a mile apart from each other,” said Infeld. “The Cleveland Foundation only agreed to fund this study because it was something different. The foundation had already funded two studies on the potential consolidation of services between multiple municipalities, but nothing came of them. There were too many people involved, and even with a smaller number of cities involved, this is really complicated. We thought that if we looked at it from the perspective of only two cities we might be able to figure it out. If we could actually accomplish a consolidation then it could be a successful model that could grow.”
Ed Kelley, mayor of Cleveland Heights, said, “We would have liked to have been part of the study originally. Four years ago I ran on the position that four fire departments—Cleveland Heights, University Heights, Shaker Heights and South Euclid—should merge. If you put them on a map it makes sense for the four municipalities to be included. The savings would be a very high number. You would only need one chief, not four, and only one assistant chief. You could save at least three-quarters of a million dollars.”
Now that the consolidation process is moving forward with only two cities, Kelley said that Cleveland Heights will see how it unfolds. “We stand willing and ready to be part of the discussion, and if it is successful and there is another opportunity for a regional approach, we would welcome it. If this works for our residents—if it saves money and service remains excellent or better—we would definitely want to be involved in the future.”
Infeld said that the dates shown in the Feb. 1 press release were target dates for legislation, which would be known as a Council of Governments Agreement, to be presented to the city councils in both cities for their approval, but that there is no such legislation because the details are still being worked out. The dates in the release are council meeting dates, however, and those meetings will still occur and residents will have an opportunity at the beginning of the meeting to express concerns or ask questions.
“The bigger question is, is this the right move for University Heights,” said Infeld, “and we don’t know yet. It’s not a done deal. I will not agree to anything that would harm our city or our employees.”
Deanna Bremer Fisher
Deanna Bremer Fisher is executive director of FutureHeights and publisher of the Heights Observer.