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Wednesday, December 14,2011

Two-headed chief

Lansing, meet your next fire chief, Randy Talifarro, whom the city will share with East Lansing, where he is already in charge. An experiment in regionalism.

by Andy Balaskovitz

For the man who is about to take the unprecedented job of leading both the Lansing and East Lansing Fire departments — in what could be described as an experiment in regionalism — one question looms: Do the similarities outweigh the differences of the two communities?

“That’s the ten-thousand-dollar question — or perhaps the million-dollar question,” Randy Talifarro said in an interview Monday. “And can you still get efficiencies for both communities? Can you enhance services in both communities?”

For Talifarro, similarities between the two cities — each with its own identity — would make for a more seamless management in terms of what level of service is expected and can be provided and the day-to-day operations of each department’s organization. 

As part of an agreement approved by the East Lansing City Council and soon by Mayor Virg Bernero, Talifarro will be in Lansing “on an as-needed basis,” the agreement says, which Talifarro expects will be 40 percent to 60 percent of his time. The agreement is on an interim basis and will last a year. Lansing would agree to compensate East Lansing monthly for the time Talifarro puts in at Lansing for salary, benefits and taxes based on payroll. Talifarro will remain an East Lansing employee and not of the city of Lansing, according to the agreement.

Talifarro will settle into retiring Lansing Fire Chief Tom Cochran’s office in mid-January after Bernero signs off on the agreement. “I don’t intend to move a lot of stuff and personalize it,” Talifarro said. 

A Flint-area native, Talifarro graduated from the University of Michigan, Flint after spending time at the school’s Ann Arbor campus. His degree is in public administration, and he said he also did paramedic training there. Talifarro, 51, took an early retirement from Flint’s Fire Department, where he had been for 17 years and left as assistant fire chief, before coming to East Lansing in 2001. 

“There were probably only a few departments I would have retired early for,” Talifarro said, East Lansing being one of them. He added that his Flint job had “security, seniority — it was a risk to leave early.”

In Flint, Talifarro said he “did a little bit of everything,” including in the fire prevention and paramedic units as sergeant, lieutenant, captain and training chief. And if there’s any place to cut your teeth in the fire business, Flint is a good start.

“That is a high fire district, a lot of runs,” Talifarro said. “Experience is your best teacher, I guess. … Obviously there’s budget challenges with that.”

The announcement of East Lansing and Lansing sharing a chief is the latest example of a regionalism concept in the area, and it’s set against the backdrop of a forthcoming six-department wide study about how the area could share its fire and EMS services.

Bernero said Monday that the administration is looking to “get the most bang for its buck” and that the idea of sharing a fire chief has been “ongoing.” 

“Times demand that we consider things that maybe we would have dismissed in the past. If we have to shuffle the deck, it should be about quality of service,” he said, adding that it’s “getting damn difficult to maintain the standard of quality” with sinking property tax and state-shared revenues.

But as for East Lansing and Lansing’s separate identities, and how that might factor into the difficulty of Talifarro’s job, Bernero said, “I don’t think Lansing or East Lansing could be fairly called low tax communities,” meaning people are wiling to pay more for certain services. He pointed to Potter Park Zoo, parks and Lansing schools’ site sinking fund millages as examples in the city. “I would say both communities show a proclivity for higher taxation. I think both are used to a high level of service. I think there’s a lot of similarities.”

Lansing voters approved a property tax increase in November that will go for public services, including firefighting.

Bernero called Talifarro “exceptional, an outstanding professional who is a visionary.” He said Talifarro would “help both departments transition to what we need to be.” But he stopped there when asked what it is “we need to be”: “I don’t have a preconceived notion about where we will end up. This is a transitional phase. I don’t know the end product. I know this: Our budget challenges are not over.”

Aside from pondering the nebulous concept of regionalism, there’s the fact that Talifarro will be doing a lot more work and will put in more time. “Without a doubt,” Talifarro said he’d be increasing his weekly hours.

And he has other concerns. For instance: “The expectation could be high in terms of cost savings; apprehension of having to get to know a department more intimately and what their challenges are; how employees feel about about the change; morale issues that have nothing to do with leadership but a lot to do with the pressure of the current economy.”

Bernero gave assurances that Talifarro would be paving the way: “Having a foot in each organization” is “going to give him a unique perspective to whatever the next step is. … Hopefully this configuration takes the nebulous and amorphous and turns it into specifics. I don’t think anyone has given him marching orders beyond see what can happen and report back. It’s his thing, and to me it’s very exciting.”

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