Flagler Beach city commissioners agreed Thursday evening to delay buying a $571,000 fire truck until they can hold an in-person workshop where the public can voice its concerns and opinions, and the city administration can make its case for buying its second fire truck in five years. But commissioners don’t know when that workshop will be held.
As with the purchase of a “quint” fire truck five years ago, the proposal to buy a new pumper truck as a replacement for the 24-year-old Engine 111 is drawing significant opposition from residents concerned about the timing, cost and necessity for the truck. But as was the case in 2016, commissioners, with one clear exception, may not be as opposed to the purchase, which is strongly backed by City Manager Larry Newsom.
“Right now it’s too soon to try and pick a date for a workshop,” Mayor Linda Provencher said. “Things are changing day to day, week to week. Especially if we’re meeting on a weekly basis, it might be better to wait and see what the governor decides.” The commission is meeting virtually, through zoom, for its meetings and workshops, as it did Thursday.
“So we’ll be holding a workshop–sometime,” Jane Mealy, who chairs the commission, said.
The decision to delay a decision followed a 40-minute discussion on the truck, including a presentation by Fire Chief Bobby Pace. “There’s been no deviation for the need of this truck,” he said. “There was never any illusions for me of when we were going to move with this truck.
The fire truck would be paid through the city’s portion of a county sales surtax. The revenue has allowed the city to accumulate just over $300,000 in a reserved fund for the new truck, through annual $75,000 set-asides. The balance would be drawn from the infrastructure fund, which currently stands at just under $1 million. The old fire engine would be donated to Flagler Palm Coast High School’s Fire Academy.
Pace entertained three proposals: Rosenbauer quoted a $582,000 truck but offered “suspect” materials that might not hold up over time, he said. E-One submitted a $619,000 proposal for an unstocked truck. Pierce proved to be the best deal, he said, the deal including a $17,000 credit if the city were to buy the truck up front. The truck would have “an extensive warranty list” that’ll give the city 15 to 20 years’ service.
For the last five years, Pace said, giving a brief overview of demands on the fire department, fires totaled 211 calls, including structure fires, cooking fires, vehicle fires and others. “There were some significant fires over the last several months, including the fire at the Moody boat ramp, where this entire dock could have burned to the ground,” he said. “A fire on the north end where two dogs were saved, and the most recent fire on South Daytona, without this ladder truck, there was a high potential to lose this entire city block.”
But he also said that Flagler County was “scheduled to be the fastest-county in the state.” He did not attribute the forecast, or note that such forecasts, like those preceding the 2008 Great Recession, no longer apply in light of the current recession.
Commissioners had a few questions, some of them, such as those posed by newly-minted Commissioner Ken Bryan, clearly intended to solicit responses supportive of the purchase: that the department doesn’t just answer fire calls on the island but throughout Flagler County, under a mutual-aid agreement with other agencies, and at times all the way to Volusia County, that firefighters are trained paramedics with numerous certifications–all of them are driver-engineers–and that replacing particular, key parts of Engine-111 would be prohibitively expensive.
Deborah Phillips, also newly installed as a commissioner, asked about buying a rebuilt, or used, engine. Pace did not look into that. “I’ll be clear on that with the time windows that IU’;m speaking of,” he said. “I was asked a couple of times about this and to be point blank, I don;t want to inherit somebody else’s problems, so if somebody has a fire rigg out there that’s used or that they’re calling the best thing in the world that’s refurbished, I don’t know anything about that truck. This truck I’ll know from the ground up, bumper to bumper.”
Phillips is also interested in exploring grant possibilities to defray the cost of the fire engine, and to explore leasing possibilities. Pace said he did not have the kind of staff that could spend the time necessary to write the sort of grant available. A lease, the finance director said, might require a request for proposal and incur interest costs. The truck’s current price includes a $17,000 credit, but neither Pace nor Newsom knew what would happen to the credit if the truck were financed differently than through an up-front cash payment.
Newsom proposed using the budget workshops to discuss the fire engine. “We’ve got time for that, so the budget workshops are not that far off,” he told commissioners–a change of track for Newsom, who earlier this week, in an interview, said the timing was right to buy the truck now, without need to wait for the budget workshops. “So having a separate workshop just for the fire engine, why not just make it part of the budget process?”
“Because it’s become a major issue and a lot of people have a lot to say,” Mealy said. “I would really rather do it earlier if we’re able to, just have it on that one subject.” Other commissioners were fine either way.
“What I was trying to do was kind of force people to get involved in the budget,” Newsom said. “Because there’s a lot of things in the capital improvement within the budget that a lot of people don’t even know about, because they don’t attend. And maybe this could be an attractive item to make them attend.” Then he explained why he had previously favored bringing the item forward now–because of the “deal” on the table. But he conceded that the fire truck issue had taken larger proportions.
Residents have also raised questions about the transparency of the deal.
“Information that has been presented to this board has always been done with complete transparency when discussing the budget for equipment replacement,” Pace said.
Some residents disputed the way this particular budget item for equipment replacement was identified in the city commission’s agenda–as a budget resolution that nowhere in the agenda itself included any mention of a fire truck, the amount in question, reference to a truck purchase or reference to a replacement program. Those agendas are emailed to residents who have subscribed to the city’s announcements of coming meetings. But a resident would have had to go to the city’s website, brought up the meeting agenda’s packet and either viewed it online or downloaded its 91 pages to see, on page 51, what the agenda item was really about.
That sort of seeming dissimulation prompted complaints to City Clerk Penny Overstreet, who prepares the agenda and who herself was unaware of the details in that particular item, as she explained in one email: “The City Manager was in and out of the office that day and I needed to review the agenda with him before posting,” she told a constituent. “He reviewed it and told me he had three items to add, 2 items for the Wickline Center and a budget amendment for the fire department. I said okay he said it was okay to post after I added the items. I used the generic budget amendment language to meet the deadline, and followed up with the Finance Director later to asked if that resolution title was okay, she said yes. When the backup material was provided to me (Friday, May 8th, I scanned it into laserfiche where the public could access it through the web site. There was not intent to “hide” any agenda items. I hope this provides explanation for one of your questions, I would hate for my actions to be interpreted to be deceitful, I didn’t even know what the budget amendment was for, I just knew which department budget it would be for.”
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur, who had led the opposition to buying the “quint” fire truck five years ago, before his election to the commission, is again the most vocal opponent of the truck buy. “I don’t think now is the time to discuss this,” he said Thursday. “I think we had a plan in place where we put $75,000 a year in the fund to buy a new fire truck. The commission all agreed on that and has known what the plan was. Now we made it just a little past halfway and now it’s time to get the truck. I think we ought to wait out and accumulate the money. We don’t know what life’s going to bring us after this pandemic or if it continues. I think infrastructure money may come in handy somewhere down the road.”