Council 'hoses' fire truck deal
It was a deal that the Warwick Fire Department said was too good to pass up and, factoring in their aging fire trucks, would have been “irresponsible” to not bring forward and ask about.
But in the end, the fire department’s request to purchase a $350,000 Spartan Triple Combination Pumper fire truck will have to wait until next year, as the Finance Committee voted unanimously Monday night to hold the request until the first City Council meeting of March, 2018.
“We are not denying the fire department to purchase a vehicle,” said finance chair Ed Ladouceur. “We’re saying we need to exercise our due diligence financially to ensure the department can afford it and the taxpayers can afford it.”
Fire Chief James McLaughlin and Assistant Chief James Kenney brought forward the request because they say the department is in great need of replacing two of its aging trucks – Engines 5 and 8, the former of which has been in use since 1999 and the latter since 2000 – that have both logged around 170,000 miles each and are suffering from corrosion problems.
“If we don’t adhere to the plan [of replacing aging trucks], which we haven’t been, it’s a deck of cards and it’s starting to fall down,” Kenney said, adding that Engines 5 and 8 have been put “on the back burner” due to insufficient funding available to replace them and that reserve Engines 13 and 19 were “on their last leg.”
“If those [reserve] trucks go down, we’re repairing it for a lot of money to keep an old truck on the road,” Kenney continued. “And in the meantime, if we’re calling in another city’s truck – which we will be doing if we don’t get this [new truck] eventually, and we’re doing it now – we’ll be paying for their repairs as well.”
A nearly identical truck to the one requested for purchase, currently located at C&S Specialty in North Smithfield with 2,387 miles clocked, had been available through a bid in February for a higher price of $430,000. In addition to the $80,000 in savings, the truck also included an additional $10,000 in optional equipment at no extra cost.
Kenney said that the request, besides being a great deal, is also a matter of improving safety for firefighters.
“We wouldn’t be presenting this if we didn’t feel it was worthwhile,” he said. “We’re not going to get another price like this. We need trucks, badly. It’s becoming a safety concern when fuel tanks are falling out of the back of trucks and we have crossmembers rotting off of trucks.”
Ladouceur did not budge in his stance, however.
“Having vehicles myself I understand there’s times when you’d certainly like to purchase something new but, then again, there’s times when you certainly can’t afford it and you have to make do with what you have and make those repairs that are necessary to do so,” he said, adding that other cities and towns had likely weighed the option to purchase this truck but passed it up because they couldn’t afford it.
Ward 7 Councilor and finance committee member Stephen McAllister said the issue was not that the fire department doesn’t need, or deserve, a new truck, but that it was a tough time to ask for such a large sum of money in the young fiscal year.
“My concern tonight is just on the timing of the purchase. The fiscal year started July 1, and we’re only into September, so $350,000 is a lot of money to take out of the general fund so early,” he said. “There are always unexpected expenses that come up, not just in the fire department but for all departments across the city.”
City treasurer Brian Silvia clarified to the committee that the funds for this purchase would not come out of the FY18 general fund, but rather it would be purchased via the city’s lease fund. This means that the city would essentially pay for the truck now with credit and pay it back, with interest, through allocations in future budgets over an agreed-upon number of years. In such a situation, the first payment would be due one year later to the date of the purchase.
The city’s lease fund cannot exceed $10 million at any given time, explained Silvia on Wednesday. He reported that Warwick has used about $5.8 million of those funds as of the current fiscal year.
However once again, Ladouceur did not find this a convincing enough reason to approve the request.
“You can color it in any language you want, ultimately the taxpayers have to pay for it,” he said Monday. “I am not going to approve a check when I do not know that there is enough money in the account.”
Citizen Rob Cote agreed with Ladouceur’s take.
“This money has to come from some place, and it comes from the taxpayers,” he said. “We haven’t seen any initiative on the part of the department to streamline their moneys to be able to have the cash flow to be able to purchase this piece of equipment.”
Ladouceur, too, said he couldn’t be certain the fire department will have sufficient funds in their budget to cover the payments down the road. He pointed to the fire department’s overtime expenses, a pending lawsuit and the department requesting budgeting for more firefighters than ultimately proved necessary as evidence to support his uncertainty.
“Those are very significant concerns to me and I am not going to be supporting of this pumper, at least at this point, because of the significant financial concerns and financial impact I see potentially happening to the taxpayers,” said Ladouceur.
McLaughlin responded to these points, saying it was “unfair” to hold the fact that the department had already used 52 percent of its overtime budget for the current fiscal year against them, because the fire department’s overtime budget had been cut in half from last fiscal year. He said that overtime costs for last year were exceptionally high because they had to train 19 new recruits, and that of a requested $950,000 overtime budget, the fire department only received $600,000 from the city.
Ladouceur responded that, regardless of other circumstances, the finance committee has a responsibility to the taxpayers to expect every city department to live within their budgets.
“I make decisions based upon what this year’s budget is,” he said. “Not last year’s budget.”
McLaughlin reiterated the warning that pushing off replacing equipment will only create bigger problems later.
“If you do not keep a consistent handle on replacing fire trucks, the can is being kicked down the road and it’s going to mean a big problem in the future,” McLaughlin said, adding that $600,000 was not a sufficient overtime budget for a 220-man firefighting department.
“I guess we choose to differ,” said Ladouceur.
“We do,” McLaughlin responded.
With all three members of the finance committee agreeing that they couldn’t support the purchase at this time, it was held until the first City Council meeting to be held in March of 2018.
McLaughlin followed up in an interview on Wednesday that the city’s firefighters were not in any danger by operating the current vehicles.
“The trucks are safe as we run them,” he said, adding that the fire department hasn’t received any new equipment since November of 2015. “They’re just old and do need to be replaced.”
On the back-and-forth between the finance committee, McLaughlin said he had nothing but respect for their decision, and that he had a responsibility to bring forward the request due to the exceptional nature of the deal.
“I never take anything personally. We present what we think is the right thing to do,” he said. “It’s never easy for any chief to request a new fire truck – they’re expensive pieces of equipment. It is what it is and we’ll just move on.”