MOUNT AIRY, N.C. --
Mount Airy’s commissioners gave unanimous approval Thursday night for buying a $759,000 aerial fire truck, but not without some heated words for Northern Hospital of Surry County from one official.
Commissioner Jon Cawley said it was regrettable no funding support for the ladder truck had come from the hospital, which is one location frequently cited as a place where such equipment might be needed due to its multiple stories. Larger lodging establishments also have been mentioned.
In June, the commissioners had voted to send Northern Hospital of Surry County a letter asking it to contribute toward the purchase of the vehicle. It is needed because the city fire department’s present aerial truck has hydraulic and other problems that have made it unsafe to use.
“We approached them with what I thought was a creative, out-of-the-box concept to help fund this,” Cawley related Thursday night. It involved adding a surcharge of $1 per patient each day to hospital bills.
Cawley added Thursday night that this charge would have applied only to money actually collected by NHSC rather than just billed. It would have generated about $100,000 per year, he said.
“And they rejected that idea,” Cawley said of hospital officials. The reason given was that the surcharge would have been imposed on patients from areas outside Mount Airy and bring possible repercussions, according to Thursday’s discussion.
Todd Harris also said he was surprised that the hospital rejected the plan. “I would have thought it would have gotten some traction.”
Cawley said that rather than heap the fire truck expense on the backs of citizens, city officials had worked behind the scenes to try to find ways of paying for it “without costing taxpayers any money.”
In addition to the proposed hospital surcharge, those efforts included seeking a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was denied. The grant would have provided 95 percent of the vehicle’s cost.
Cawley mentioned how such efforts illustrated that city leaders were willing to explore mechanisms other that just pulling money from the municipal budget. And he said the issue shows that it’s important for local entities such as Northern Hospital to also “change their way of thinking.”
The hospital doesn’t pay property taxes as businesses do, it was pointed out Thursday night.
Program Aids Purchase
When the federal grant and other options for the truck fell through, city officials ended up earmarking money from the municipality’s fund balance.
However, Mount Airy did get somewhat of a financial break by acquiring the truck through a “competitive group purchasing” program. State law normally requires a city to undergo a formal competitive bid process for equipment costing more than $90,000.
Such a process poses many administrative costs to a locality, including time spent preparing specifications and other tasks.
There is an exception to the law that allows group purchasing for equipment such as an aerial truck. Such an arrangement is defined by state statute as an “organized program that offers competitively obtained purchasing services at discount prices to two or more public agencies.”
Research by Fire Chief Zane Poindexter turned up such a program, the Houston-Galveston Area Council (H-GAC), based in Texas.
“It is legal,” said City Attorney Hugh Campbell, who reviewed the program before it was presented to the board Thursday night. The program was defined as a kind of “Sam’s Club” for fire and other equipment.
The only cost involved is a $2,000 processing fee, which in this case was charged to the dealer selling Mount Airy the truck.
Board members approved the use of the Houston-Galveston Area Council group-purchasing program Thursday night before voting to actually buy the truck.
Poindexter said the city’s relationship with H-GAC will allow it to possibly save money on other equipment in the future, not just for the fire department but public works, parks and recreation and other municipal operations.