City Council inches closer toward fire truck solutions

Warren City Council met on Monday night to discuss the budget and a potential tax increase.

The focus of the conversation though was much simpler – fire trucks.

And how to pay for the replacement of the city’s tower and engine apparatus.

And council appears to have found a way to cover a few years of the debt service without raising taxes, which administration recommended just a couple weeks ago.

Mayor Maurice Cashman kicked off the session by going down through the city’s capital improvement program to examine each project.

Council narrowed in two that could be cut from the 2020 budget – infrastructure repairs in the 300 block fo W. Fifth Ave. and the trail and restroom improvements at Crescent Park that come along with a proposed healing garden project.

“As I look out to 2021 and 2022,” Cashman said, “we are in some significant deficits if the projections are correct. We can no longer afford additional amenities,” he said of the trail and restroom work. “What we have we should take care of. We shouldn’t be adding at this juncture.”

Discussion then shifted to the fire trucks when Councilman Gregory Fraser asked if administration could provide “some kind of foresight” about equipment purchases. “These two fire trucks came up kind of suddenly,” he added, and asked for an analysis about equipment purchase needs in the next two and three years.

“I’ll take the hit for that,” City Manager Nancy Freenock said. “The former chief was very good at keeping costs under control and he was good at having the ladder x-rayed every two years.”

She said the city’s other engine truck would need replaced before the debt service is paid on the two immediate replacements and that the ambulances the city has will also need to be discussed in coming years.

Fire Chief Rodney Wren said he is “looking at our EMS business in-house and our billing. We believe there is some revenue we can create from that service in itself.”

He said he isn’t comfortable providing specific amounts but noted that “we believe it will be a significant amount.”

Wren said when he came to Warren earlier this year he was focused on the engine truck and wanted to set up a plan to replace the truck in three years.

But the “issues kept compounding. So many of the safety functions that keep this piece of equipment from hurting itself… there’s so many issues with this piece of equipment. I have taken it out of regular service.”

Wren said that the recent coverage of the issue in the Times Observer has prompted vendors to start making offers to the city.

He said that “one of the things that would be a possible, not a solution, but would help the situation would be to purchase both pieces of equipment at one time. (They) basically offer you a package deal…. My recommendation would be for us to look at that.”

How quickly could the trucks get here?

Wren said they are looking at “stock trucks,” a “kind of generic vehicle…. They typically aren’t the Cadillacs, not super fancy… but they would be a viable option for us to entertain.”

“That would have a shorter delivery time,” he noted, as short as 35-45 days to as late as April to June.

“Anything we can find and get our hands on right now is basically a stock unit,” Wren said.

Cashman asked if that was satisfactory.

Wren said he believes they can find one with “decent compartmentalization” but that size of the garage doors is a bigger issue. Department of Public Works Director Mike Holtz noted that could be addressed for a “few thousand dollars.”

Fraser asked if Wren could give a “ballpark in pricing.”

“Probably around $1.5 million for the two of them,” Wren said, noting he is working with the vendor about loaner options.

Freenock said she would like to bring an item to council at the regular meeting later this month to authorize the purchase.

“I think by our meeting later this month,” he said, “chief will know which way we’re going to go.”

Lewis noted the funds freed up from cutting the two projects totals $668,590. When asked for clarity after the meeting, staff presented a lesser amount in savings from those two projects but acknowledged that it’s still enough to cover the debt service for the fire trucks – estimated at $165,000 annually over a 15 year term.

Lewis noted that “cancels out the need for two mills of taxes.”

Freenock had initially proposed a two mill tax increase to cover the purchase.

“There is no need for new taxes if you relinquish those two projects for a year or longer,” Lewis said.

Cashman acknowledged it is “sort of kicking the can down the road.”

“I don’t think the next council is going to like us,” Councilman Paul Giannini said.

Aaron Stearns, a candidate for council in today’s election, called the decision a “three year bandaid on a 10-year problem. How are we going to fix that going forward?”

“It’s a very good question,” Cashman responded. “It’s a question we’re going to have to work on.”

He acknowledged that council would be putting off a tax increase this year and can’t say they can’t do that for next year.

“For the first time, we have a three year projection to look at and it’s not pretty, especially in the second and third year,” Cashman continued. Citing 16 years on the school board and 14 on council, he said that “every budget I have ever seen in those 30 years, the deficits don’t come as much as they say it will,” in that revenues are underestimated and expenses are overestimated.

“This is coming, I believe, but not as (bad) as they’re saying,” he said. “Yes there will be tax increases. I don’t doubt that. I want to see what we can do differently. Does the deficit come as projected? Maybe the state will do something differently for us.”