ATWATER — The purchase of a new fire truck sparked a heated display of politics at a City Council meeting this week.
Two sides bitterly torn over the nearly $900,000 expenditure hashed it out Monday night. A series of interruptions and so-called personal attacks forced the politicians to call several “points of order” to regain control of the meeting.
But after an hourlong discussion, the council approved the controversial fire truck purchase in a 3-2 vote. Councilmen Jeff Rivero and Joe Rivero voted against the item.
Using a lease financing option, the 109-foot ladder truck will cost $890,048 with an annual payment of $89,209 over the next 10 years, according to city documents. The money will come from Measure H funds, which are expected to reach $1.2 million by the end of the fiscal year.
Officials said the current Measure H balance stands at $936,075.
Measure H, the voter-approved special tax to support public safety, added a half-cent tax hike for all transactions. The measure passed with a 67.1 percent vote in March 2013.
Fire officials said the new firetruck is needed to replace two aging pieces of equipment and to provide a higher ladder to reach the top of several city structures. The department’s highest ladder is 24 feet and isn’t tall enough to reach the top of some buildings – the Bloss House, Buhach Colony High School and Kmart, to name a few.
“This is unsafe for my firefighters or anybody to actually do any operations on top of this building,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Battalion Chief Mark Pimentel said during the meeting, showing pictures of the ladder propped up next to the buildings.
The fire station owns a 50-foot ladder from 1979, but Pimentel said it’s out of service and outdated, and repairs would be too “costly.” If a fire breaks out at one of Atwater’s tall buildings, Pimentel said, the department would request mutual aid from the county or the city of Merced, but help is not guaranteed.
Opponents of the firetruck said the money should be used to hire more police officers and increase “boots on the ground” because that’s how the measure was touted to voters last year. They also called into question whether the equipment is necessary since Atwater doesn’t have many structures over 35 feet.
“We keep hearing about hotels,” said resident Jim Price. “My question is, is staff right now in any kind of active discussions with hotel developers or any multistory developers?”
However, resident Bill Barkman said many new companies look at public safety resources before deciding whether to open in a new community. “Having spent two decades in big-box retail and moving into new areas, we never went into an area that was substandard and unprepared,” he said.
Opponents rebutted by saying the lack of fire equipment didn’t stop Wal-Mart, Kmart or Super Target from coming to Atwater. Councilman Jeff Rivero also questioned the fire department’s decision to select a company to purchase the truck without a competitive bid process.
Pimentel explained the decision Wednesday by saying he looked at four vendors and the chosen company provided the best price. “We believe we saved substantial amounts of money with this company,” he said, “and that’s why we were able to do a sole-source purchase.”
Atwater City Manager and Police Chief Frank Pietro said the majority of Measure H money – $800,000 to $900,000 – is going to the police department every year. He said the money has restored police salaries cut by 22.5 percent in August 2012, though they’re still down by 7 percent.
Pietro said he plans to hire six new officers through Measure H funds within the next 18 months, but the hiring process and background checks take time, and the Measure H money isn’t available all at once.
“We’re moving forward, but people want things to happen immediately,” Pietro said. “When you’re in law enforcement, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have to take your time to make sure you have the best fit for this agency and the city.”
Cal Fire Chief Nancy Koerperich said Wednesday she is pleased with the council’s decision.
“The City Council has a right to say ‘no,’ ” she said, “but it’s just our job to let them know the good and the bad of the decision in hopes that they can make an educated decision.”
The new firetruck is anticipated to arrive in January, Koerperich said.
Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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