Detroit Commissioner Clarifies Plan for Vacant Homes

DETROIT, Mich. -- Executive Fire Commissioner Donald Austin clarified his position Wednesday on whether the department will allow vacant structures to burn as a cost-saving measure, instead of fighting the fires.

Austin, appearing before the Detroit City Council Wednesday for a budget hearing, said the department will weigh the risk to firefighters when deciding how aggressively to fight a fire on a vacant structure. Austin said he doesn't want to compromise firefighters' safety.

"What I'm talking about is risk-versus-gain analysis," said Austin, whose department faces a $23.5 million cut in Mayor Dave Bing's proposed budget. The fire department is proposed to have a budget of about $160 million, down from $183.5 million this year.

"Firefighters will risk a lot when there is a lot to gain. My firefighters need to risk little when there is little to gain. What we need to do is be less aggressive and more defensive."

On Wednesday, the council continued budget hearings as it deliberates over Bing's fiscal plan, which proposed to cut $250 million from the $1.1 billion general fund.

Austin said the fire department is looking to absorb his cuts through a shutdown of about 15 fire companies and eliminating 108 firefighter positions whose salaries will be replaced by an anticipated federal grant. The move was met with skepticism by council members who needed reassurance the grant is coming in September. Austin said he's 75 percent sure the grant funding will come, but has a contingency plan that involves more cuts if it doesn't come through.

Detroit Department of Transportation officials also appeared before the council Wednesday. General Manager Ronald Freeland said service is improving, despite recent route cutbacks.

"There has been some improvement," Freeland said. "The volume of calls we are receiving is much less than it was several months ago. As we do our surveys of our customers, we are beginning to see some improvement in terms of customer satisfaction."

Earlier, The North End Woodward Community Coalition said it filed a civil rights complaint and called for a restoration of bus cuts that were implemented earlier this year.

The group, in a statement, says it filed the Title VI civil rights complaint based on "DDOT's violation of federal regulations for public input."