Oak Harbor City Council members block fire truck request

Don Baer, the Oak Harbor Fire Department’s new lieutenant, stands with the department’s aging rescue unit, which firefighters hope to replace.   - Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times
Don Baer, the Oak Harbor Fire Department’s new lieutenant, stands with the department’s aging rescue unit, which firefighters hope to replace.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland / Whidbey News-Times

A fire truck became an unlikely hot potato during the Oak Harbor City Council meeting Tuesday night.

Three council members earned a scolding from the mayor and suspicion from the firefighters’ union after they blocked the new fire chief’s request to accept a bid and purchase a rescue unit for $131,000.

“All this stems back to the hiring of our current chief,” said Rich Cuevas, the head of the firefighter’s guild. Several council members unsuccessfully tried to prevent the confirmation of Ray Merrill, the mayor’s pick as fire chief, during two heated meetings earlier this year.

The city’s firefighters are desperate to replace the current rescue rig, which they describe as falling apart and woefully inadequate for the job of hauling live-saving equipment to the scene of car accidents and medical calls. It’s 26 years old, wasn’t built for the task and needs about $10,000 in repairs.

This summer, council members authorized Chief Merrill to advertise for a new light rescue truck. The city received four bids. The lowest bid of $113,000 from KME was thrown out by Merrill because it didn’t meet the requirement of being delivered within 45 days and it didn’t identify an authorized report center within 300 miles of the city.

Merrill was obviously excited about the next highest bidder, which is North Star / Braun out of Chehalis. The company offered a demonstration model with a 2011 Ford F-550 chassis and 14,000 miles on it, along with plenty of “bells and whistles.”

Merrill described the truck as being a colossal improvement over the current truck and exactly what the department needs; he read a long list of all the problems with the current rescue unit. The equipment, for example, has to be crammed into the compartments and it can take awhile to pull out the right tools in an emergency.

Councilwoman Tara Hizon repeatedly argued in favor of purchasing the new truck. She was the only council member who took a test drive of both the current rig and the new truck from North Star / Braun.

“I don’t know how you get anywhere in five minutes because I floored it and couldn’t get over 15 mph,” she said, addressing Merrill.

“I trust you guys to know what you need. I trust your judgment,” she added.

Likewise, Councilman Danny Paggao said the city needs to provide the firefighters with the right tools for the job.

But the three other council members weren’t convinced; Councilwoman Beth Munns and Councilman Jim Campbell were absent.

Councilman Bob Severns and Joel Servatius questioned whether it made sense to purchase a truck that, in Severns’ words, “in three months, will be two years old.” They pointed out that the other bids were for newer trucks; the lowest bid was for a truck with a 2013 Ford chassis.

Councilman Rick Almberg was worried about spending large sums of money prior to the budget process; the rescue unit wasn’t budgeted for and would require a budget amendment.

“I’m not inclined to make large capital purchases until I know where the funds are coming from,” he said.

The city has more than $300,000 in its equipment fund to purchase the truck, but the fund could be raided in a pinch to pay for items in the general fund. Finance Director Doug Merriman said he doesn’t envision needing to do so.

Almberg, however, made a motion to delay the purchase of the truck until after the budget is adopted and after there’s a resolution in negotiations with the firefighters’ guild. He said it would be a matter of just two or three months.

At the end of the meeting, Mayor Scott Dudley expressed his disappointment with the council’s actions. He accused them of micromanaging and said that in “a normal municipality” the elected officials would listen to the department heads.

“Our citizens today are not safer because of your lack of action,” he said.

Dudley also criticized the council members for tying labor negotiations to the purchase of equipment.

“Is the City Council holding this over their heads?” he asked, referring to the firefighters. “They shouldn’t go into (negotiations) feeling this way.”

Cuevas, the head of the guild, said the councilmen were making an implied threat by connecting the purchase of the truck to labor negotiations.

He also pointed out that a letter council members identified as being from the union was actually from the firefighters’ association, which are the  paid, on-call firefighters. The letter urges council members to replace the outdated and overloaded truck as soon as possible.

In an interview, Merrill emphasized that the members of the guild voluntarily gave up their cost-of-living increases in 2010 and 2012 to help the city during tough financial times, even though they were guaranteed the increases by their contracts.

Now Merrill is in a pickle. He has the authority to get the $10,000 in  repairs done to the aging rescue unit, which is vital to the department’s response. But he questions whether that would be a wise use of city funds if the council may re-authorize him to bid for a new truck in a few months.

“I’m working on contingency plans,” he said.


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