It was last year when Highland Fire Chief Rick Bloemker realized his department had a budget problem.
“I think what opened up the eyes was I put in my budget goals to replace the truck and it couldn’t be done,” Bloemker said.
The truck of which Bloemker was speaking was a 37-year-old fire engine. But the $1 million price tag to replace it was just too much, even on a payment plan.
The fire department’s annual total budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year was roughly $262,000. But Bloemker said the fire department currently has a yearly need of at least $202,500, to keep up with replacing/repairing other vehicles, rescue tools and complying with federally mandated purchases of bunker gear and self-contained breathing apparatuses.
That means, even if it saved every other penny, it would take the department nearly 17 years to buy that fire engine.
“They couldn’t even save enough money if they had to to make that happen,” said Highland Police Chief Terry Bell, who also serves as the city’s director of Public Safety over all three departments.
The truck is just one example of the laundry list of big-ticket items for the Public Safety Department, which includes fire, police and EMS. But by no means is it the most expensive.
Improving the Public Safety Department was identified as the No. 1 priority by the City Council when members were reviewing the city’s comprehensive plan last year.
They asked Bell to compile a list that showed the current needs for police, fire and EMS. Bell’s tally sheet came to about $1 million a year in proposed spending. But the majority of that, about 70 percent, came under one item — a new public safety building that would house all three departments.
But even if the city were to decide against a new combined public safety building, Bloemker also said the city’s main fire station would need drastic renovations.
Bloemker said when the Fire Station No. 1 was built along Broadway almost 40 years ago, it was not built with the future in mind. The building is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which could subject the department to hefty federal fines and potential lawsuits, according to Bloemker.
The building, which also houses EMS staff, did not originally have living quarters. So, over the years, improvised quarters were created.
Station No. 1 houses three EMS shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Highland EMS Chief Brian Wilson said that the department would like to provide new quarters that can appropriately accommodate both men and women.
“And we are not looking to keep them in luxury,” Wilson said. “We are looking to give them comfortable, adequate facilities.”
Office space is inadequate, the chiefs said, which has forced Bloemker and Wilson to have off-premises offices.
Bloemker and Wilson also listed a leaky roof, a collapsing retainer wall on the back of the building, a crumbling driveway, a lack of storage, rotting woodworking, steep stairs to and from employee quarters, and foundational issues that are starting to put cracks in the buildings, among other issues.
“Whenever you live in any community it takes a lot of money to maintain status quo,” Wilson said. “When you live in an old community, it takes even more money just to maintain status quo.”
As for the police department, Bell said their the main reason against keeping HPD in its current building is the location.
Located at 820 Mulberry St., the station was built 35 years ago and lacks many features a modern day department should have for safety, Bell said.
The current building does not have a sally port, a garage-type structure that allows a safe transfer of people who have been taken into custody between a vehicle and the building.
Currently, to book someone, officers need to take the arrested person out of the car and walk at least 20 feet to a door on the side of the building in front of the parking lot. Bell said it is not uncommon for an alleged criminal or victim’s family member and/or witnesses to arrive at the same time as the prisoner.
“It creates an unsafe environment,” Bell said.
The station’s restroom set-up also forces officers to use the same facilities as witnesses. Their are also no separate waiting areas for witnesses, victims, and families who are waiting to make a statement.
To exit the building on a call, police officers have to drive through the surrounding residential neighborhood, which is not ideal, Bell said.
The station has also begun to run out of space, Bell said. Officers use a vacant cell as an evidence locker, and there is no room to put one vehicle, with its costly equipment, under roof. So it is outside at all times, according to Bell.
The station is also not in compliance with ADA standards and needs heavy renovations, according to Bell. Bell also said that the drywall has needed to be replaced multiple times because of molding in the walls brought on by leaky ceilings.
Is doing nothing an option?
The chiefs agreed that if these needs are not met, costs would start to stack up.
“It gets to where you don’t have enough fingers to put in all the holes in the dike,” Bell said.
As a result, they said the quality of the community’s public safety could be compromised.
“It’s not meant as a scare tactic,” Wilson said. “But the basic fact of reality is we would continue to provide the services we provide now, but there might be an increased risk with it. Because some of this equipment that has a lifespan to it that we can’t afford to replace could start to fail, and now we’ve got a bigger problem.”
Bloemker said that if improvements are not made, the city’s Insurance Service Office rating would deteriorate, meaning increased insurance rates.
Overall, the chiefs said the ideal course of action would to be to construct a new public safety building, and that was the plan drawn up five years ago. In 2012, the estimated cost for that type of building was $12 million.
However, today, the project would cost $17 million, too expensive even if the city were to pass a proposed new business district sales tax.
Bell said while they are still exploring options, cheapest and most efficient course of action might be to build a new police-only station and heavily renovate the Fire Station No. 1 at 1115 Broadway.
“We’re not asking for a Taj Mahal here,” Bell said.
Finding the money
Bell said the city has had tight budget controls in place since The Great Recession hit almost a decade ago. However, things have been stretched about as far as they can go.
“If costs are increasing, and the budget is not increasing, the cost of needs has to be drawn from somewhere,” Bell said.
To that end, the city has been pursuing the possibility of raising sales taxes. The plan calls for up to 1 percent hike in three designated business districts.
The law that allows for additional sales tax was intended as a way to promote business and fix blighted areas. However, it also allows for public safety applications.
It is estimated that the tax will bring in an extra $1 million to the city each year, which happens to equal the public safety wants list, including the new station. It just might not leave any money left over to promote business or prevent blight.
“We are sensitive to the fact that nobody wants to pay more taxes. We live in town. We don’t want to either,” Wilson said. “But at some point, it is the cost of doing business.”
At this point, City Manager Mark Latham said the city really has no other option — other than a property tax increase — to find revenue for the Public Safety Department. Highland’s total property tax levy last year was only $3.6 million.
“We’re not sure where we’ll go with this if this doesn’t happen, because we don’t have any other options,” Bell said.
Implementation of the proposed sales tax does not require voter approval. The City Council is expected to vote in the issue at its meeting on Sept. 18.
“We have some really professional, dedicated people in all of our departments,” Bell said. “We’re very, very proud of our public safety folks. They put their lives on the line for us, and we want to make sure that they understand that we want to invest back in them and make sure they stay safe.”