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Upper Peninsula township considers millage for emergency services

Two Whitefish Township ambulances sit parked on a road.
Renee Gray
Two Whitefish Township ambulances

Rural communities often face unique healthcare challenges compared to their urban counterparts.

Long travel times, an aging workforce and population decline across rural communities have created issues maintaining a healthy first-responder workforce in places like northern Michigan.

This upcoming election, Feb. 27, Whitefish Township in the eastern Upper Peninsula will face a choice of whether to increase financial support for their emergency services in the face of a shrinking tax base.

Whitefish Township, which includes Paradise, has relied on paid volunteers to run its emergency medical services (EMS) for decades.

But over the past couple of years, the township has struggled to recruit and retain first responders.

Renee Gray, the township EMS director, said the community has changed its funding structure in order to entice volunteers to stay.

“We utilize the same volunteers, but now they're paid a stipend and per run or they're paid a hourly rate,” she said. “We don't have the funds in our budget to sustain an hourly rate, but keeping them is a problem when we don't have the funds to pay them.”

Gray said the aging demographic in the township has not helped the situation. According to the 2022 Census, the median age in Whitefish Township is 61.1 years, and nearly 40% of the community is above the age of 65.

“It's really gotten critical in the past, I would say, four years where people have moved out and taken careers elsewhere, so we're stuck with a handful of [people] 50 plus years of age,” said Edson Forrester, the Whitefish Township supervisor.

But residents will get the chance to potentially change that in the upcoming election through a proposed millage.

The proposal would increase the tax limitation by five mills over the next four years. This means houses that are valued at $100,000 would see a $500 increase to their taxes each year.

Whitefish Township Community Center
Teresa Homsi
Whitefish Township Community Center

According to Forrester, this amount would ensure that the township’s EMS continues to run with enough payroll to staff its employees.

“Five mills is if you do some math on what it takes to staff an ambulance service, that's where the five mills came from,” he said.

John Griebel, a resident and former first responder for the Whitefish Township EMS, said he is worried about what could happen in an emergency if the proposal doesn’t pass.

“There’s the possibility that you might call and instead of somebody being there in 10 minutes, it’s gonna be 45 minutes,” he said. “And in medical services, everybody understands that that can be absolutely critical."

Griebel said the community does not have close access to a hospital, making their emergency services even more essential.

“Our two hospitals, Sault Ste. Marie is close to 60 miles away and the Helen Newberry Joy Hospital in Newberry is 35 miles away,” he said.

Other members in the community are concerned over the cost of the proposed millage.

Bridget Nodurft, a retiree and resident living in Whitefish Township, said she would be unable to afford the millage on her fixed income.

“I’m looking at a huge tax increase,” she said. “I’m also worried that I could be forced out of my home of 37 years because I won’t be able to keep up with property taxes that will just continue to rise with that kind of emergency medical costs.”

Nodurft said many others in the community share her concerns including some of the community’s part-time residents.

“We have a lot of retirees, but also, I'm guessing, at least half of the property owners are non-resident,s and a lot of them have lake frontage property,” she said. “That's where the biggest tax increases come, but they won't have a vote in it.”

Whitefish Township has also considered a backup plan if the proposal does not pass.

It recently joined the Northern EMS Authority, which is a coalition of nine other townships within Chippewa County also struggling with their EMS.

The Authority is still in its creation process, but if it comes to fruition, it would place emergency services strategically throughout the county.

"Do you want to keep your ambulance in your township and have it available when you call, or do you want to have it stationed where it provides better coverage for other townships in the whole region?" Forrester said.

Because the Authority is still in early development, many residents from both sides of the issue have expressed concerns.

“If you're familiar with Chippewa County, we're talking like 130 miles distance,” Forrester said. “That’s a big distance for a medical authority to cover.”

Forrester said he expects the Authority to cost less than the township’s proposed millage, but he said he won’t know for certain until after the Authority starts its operations.

“The authority is gonna have to get established, get their people hired and get operating,” he said. “They have two or three years under their belt before they're actually going to be able to predict what an annual run cost is going to be.”

The Northern EMS Authority hopes to alleviate some of the community’s concerns through a feasibility study to determine how the agency will function and what the potential costs will be.

A draft version of the study has been released, but is undergoing review from the townships before it will be released to the public.

Renae is a newsroom intern covering northwest Lower Michigan for WCMU.
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