By TOM BLANCHARD
The Bellevue City Council is asking residents to approve a fire bond on the ballot this coming November to purchase a new fire truck, contribute to a land purchase and fund small equipment replacement. The council has also increased the 2012 budget for operations and is trading city property to support a stand-alone fire department. The total of these investments comes to nearly $750,000. This action was taken without significant review that included the taxpayers. In a May public hearing on the fire study, the council promised that there would be another full public hearing, which has never occurred. The council did not establish a citizen advisory committee to review the data and make a recommendation.
Where are the data?
The council's decision not to seek further service alternatives such as contracts with the city of Hailey or Wood River Fire & Rescue is based on "new numbers" that show that Bellevue would be better off with its own department, but what are these new numbers that support that contention? The fire chief claims that it would be more costly to consolidate, but where are the data to support that assertion? Wood River Fire & Rescue has offered a five-year contract for services for about $90,000 per year. Why is this hastily conjured increased budget for an independent fire department a better value for the taxpayers? Again, where are the data that support that decision?
The council has also asked us to support the improvements to the Fire Department through a land purchase using city-held property as trade value. Where is the appraisal information on this exchange for public evaluation? The Cedar Street house was valued at $400,000 before the recession and would likely be $250,000 today. The lot on South Main Street might have a value of $90,000. The budget included at least $48,000 for the land and the bond will contribute $10,000 for a total of about $400,000.Add the bond total to this land cost for the total investment of about $750,000.
We are told that the new building will hold up to four trucks, but we have not seen a building layout that addresses issues like equipment storage, crew change rooms and training and administration space. There has been no reference to an appraisal for the properties in question. The long-term capital needs of the department should also call for the replacement of the other outdated vehicles, including another tanker/pumper, a brush truck and a command vehicle. Are there any remodels that will be necessary to make the building work or road work to improve the access? Are we going to have a flashing light at the intersection of Ash and Highway 75, and how much will that cost?
Past fire studies
In the past five years, Bellevue has participated in two studies, both of which recommend consolidation as the most professional and least costly option to the community. Where, then, do these numbers come from that fly in the face of two professional studies? Based on the most recent study, the consultants drew the conclusion that under consolidation, Bellevue would not have to construct a new fire station for the next 20 years. It also concluded that there was sufficient rolling stock between the three departments that no new vehicles were needed in the immediate future. Where, then, are the savings to the Bellevue taxpayers that would now justify the bond and future capital investments that could top $1 million?
Citizen Advisory Committee
In the past six years, Bellevue voters have supported two successful bond or levy override elections. They did so because the City Council demonstrated the need by gathering the data in a very transparent manner and by asking a citizen advisory committee to review the data and make a recommendation to the council. Those committees were not rubber stamps. Many members were staunchly against increased government spending, but in both cases the committees acted unanimously in recommending approval of the bonds. That is the process that has worked in the past and the process that should be implemented now.
I believe the community wants good fire service and our department is struggling. Hasty meeting, cutting off discussion and rushed decisions based on hazy data are a sure way to wave a red flag in front of the voters. I would recommend a no vote on this bond and urge the council to convene a diverse citizen advisory group to examine long-term city needs and the best alternatives for reaching them.
Valley resident Tom Blanchard is a former Bellevue city administrator.