City Council Faces Decisions on Fire Department
Oskaloosa, IA – Oskaloosa’s City Council has to decide what to do with its more than 100 year old fire department. The building that houses a portion of the department’s equipment will soon be torn down, causing a storage issue for the city.
Oskaloosa’s fire department has 9 vehicles, a boat, and a trailer, along with other various things a fire department needs like water hose and firefighting suits. At some point in the past, the department grew out of its location, constructed in 1909, and in 1981 started storing equipment in the Reisman Building, which is next door. But structural deficiencies with that building have forced the department to move out. The water department used to have offices in the building too, but moved to its new location last January.
Fire Chief Mark Neff says, “The city had a structural engineer come in, do some evaluation of it and determined that it would cost more to fix it than it would to tear it down”.
The city plans on tearing down the building in the next few weeks, but tearing it down creates a problem of where to store the fire department’s equipment.
Neff’s biggest concern is making sure there is somewhere to store equipment during the winter. “We’ve got to have somewhere inside with heat to keep the trucks from freezing,”.
Neff says storage isn’t the only issue he’s dealing with because when the station was built in 1909 it was made to accommodate horses pulling hose carts. So, even though firetrucks have gotten bigger the vehicle entrance to the station has stayed the same. Thats left only a palms-width of clearance for trucks to drive through.
Despite the department’s less than ideal situation, it’s doing the best it can with the space it’s got. The department has moved around its gear to accommodate storing two more trucks. The trucks used to be housed in the other building, but were moved out so the building can be demolished. That’s making small spaces even smaller.
“Just, as you can see we’re just kinda compressed with room”, says Neff.
Finding the solution is up to the city council. It’ll decide what to do with the department’s close quarters. Neff says city records show that it’s the second fire station the city’s ever had.
“It’s served us well it can continue to serve us well if they [city council] decide to build an addition or, you know, do we look at another option”, says Neff.
CRI had a conversation with City Manager Michael Schrock about the issue:
What are the city council’s options in dealing with this problem?
We’ve hired an architect to evaluate four options. Option 1 is estimated to be about $1.2 million and would be an addition to the existing fire station. The bays would run north-south and so they’d line up with the existing three bays that we presently utilize at the facility. It would be a minimal improvement providing just enough space. It basically replaces what was demolished in the old fire building and old water department building. It would create a situation where we’d have to match up the bricks with the current fire station, and make sure the aesthetics match the existing city hall, but it would accommodate enough space for the existing apparatus and equipment.
Option two was that sweet spot between staying at the existing facility, but also building enough room to accommodate future growth. So what we looked at was developing bays that would open up east-west. The existing facility faces north-south. It would be a newer facility on the exterior and it would complement the existing city hall facility. We had some sketches provided to us by the architect that showed how that would layout. With this particular option we were looking at about $2.2 million, and I would say it accommodates growth, it addresses existing needs, and it keeps the facility downtown. One of the nice things about this option is that we would also renovate the third floor of city hall, which is where the band practices, and that would become a community room. So not only would it address the fire department’s need but it also helps us create a new conference/meeting space for the public.
For option 3, the council wanted to see what it would take to build a separate facility yet keep it in downtown. That option ran approximately $3.2 million. It tries to create a new facility so you get all the new living quarters, new apparatus bays, and it also tries to utilize the existing facility by keeping those three bays in service within the original fire station. So, not a lot of interest, initially, when we presented that to council, just because it doesn’t really address the needs. We still would have to build a sky walk to connect the facilities. We didn’t really see much operational efficiencies gained by that particular option, so out of the four options I’d say that was probably the least supported option.
The fourth option is if the fire department located completely off-site. The council’s question to us as staff is, if we developed a new facility, what would that look like, how much would that cost. The architect estimated about $3.4 million for that new facility, and it would accommodate the needs of the fire department. The nice thing about it is we could scale it up or scale it down to incorporate other users, [such as the Emergency Management Agency].
If the council decides to build a brand new building, where would it be built?
That’s part of the dilemma we have. It’s not necessarily that we have 3 to 5 acres of land just sitting around in the city’s inventory. So we would have to work with property owners to see if there was land available for the construction of the facility.
How will the project will be financed?
We want to make sure that the price tag is as low as it could possibly be, but that the needs are still met for the fire department. So, staff has recommended that the council seek the voter’s approval, at some point in the future, to borrow money to build the facility. Because we don’t necessarily have millions of dollars laying around that are unused.
Borrowing money means issuing bonds and that takes a referendum on a ballot that citizens will vote on. They’ll essentially say, yes, we want to raise our taxes to fund this project, is that right?
Yes, but I’m always nervous about saying ‘raise our taxes’. I think one of the things we’ve tried to present to the council is a financial plan that would keep citizen’s taxes either level, or as I’ve presented in the financials, the debt service for borrowing actually goes down, because we continue to pay-down a number of old debt issuances.
So right now, the city’s debt service rate is $2.20. Next year it will be $2.18, and if no new debt is added, the year after that it will be $1.55. But if voters approve the new debt, it would move the debt service rate back at $2.18. That’s about $92 for a property worth $80,000. A rate of $2.18 would maintain the existing debt service tax rate, until other debts expire, meaning taxes would not go up because of the new debt, is that right?
Correct. The city is in a very good situation when it comes to debt that’s issued, we have very little debt and once we’re getting ready to pay off one, that’s often times when cities will look at issuing new debt to pick up ‘needs’ that aren’t being previously met. So in this instance the council and staff have identified the fire station as a need. We have an opportunity to issue that debt without a significant impact on property tax payers.
Are there any other ways that the project can be funded?
We looked at various options. The city council’s been very sensitive to not wanting to issue debt unless absolutely necessarily so. So we’ve tried to pay for projects with cash on hand. I presented options to the council that would include looking at local option sales tax, using franchise fees, using general fund balance over the existing 8-10 tax levy… I’ve tried to look at all of those and say, here are the options, what would you [city council] like to do. In every scenario, the funds are pledged to other projects. Take the local option sales tax, it’s pledged to make road improvements such as those on South 7th St., C Ave East, and North 3rd St. Those are all projects that are being paid for out of local option sales tax. Same thing with the franchise fee. And so, the council will have a tough decision whether or not they want to divert those funds going toward roads or find some other financing mechanism.
When can we expect to the city council to make a decision? When will voters see a referendum on the ballot?
I think within the next few months we’ll have a better idea about where the council wants to go. City council work sessions are going to continue after the architect meets with staff. We want to get input from the public, we’ll be reaching out to people, just to get their thoughts on the concepts and even the financing mechanisms.
So nothing on the ballot in November then?
I can’t say that for sure, but I wouldn’t necessarily expect so. Again, I think the council would rather take the time that’s needed to evaluate the options thoroughly, not rush it and put it on the ballot without being able to make sure we can understand and sell this to the public as a necessary improvement.