A fire truck was once again a bone of contention at the Oak Harbor City Council meeting this week.
Four members of the council were scolded by colleagues after they refused to change their minds about delaying the purchase of a rescue rig because of budget concerns, even though the city has more than enough money in the equipment rental fund.
Immediately afterward, the same council members supported the purchase of other, non-budgeted equipment for City Hall, specifically a new server and an HVAC system to provide heat to the mayor’s office and surrounding areas. The irony wasn’t lost on Mayor Scott Dudley, who accused them of micromanaging certain departments.
“We have no problem replacing a heating unit,” he said, referring to the council. “I will go without heat in the admin (office) if that means we can have a rescue rig at our fire department. That is the priority.”
The difference, however, was in dollars. The rescue rig that firefighters want to purchase was $131,000. The HVAC systems and the server totaled about $28,000.
The issue goes back to the last council meeting at which three councilmen — Joel Servatius, Rick Almberg and Bob Severns — blocked Fire Chief Ray Merrill’s request to purchase a rescue rig to replace the current truck, which is 26 years old, in need of expensive repairs, slow and not adequate for the job of hauling rescue equipment to emergencies.
The council had approved the fire department’s request to go out for bids. Merrill returned to the council with the winning bid, but the three councilmen passed a motion to delay purchase of the truck until after the budget is done and negotiations with the firefighters union are complete.
Councilwoman Beth Munns and Councilman Jim Campbell were absent from the September meeting, but were back this week.
Following the September meeting, critics accused the councilmen of delaying the truck purchase as political payback over the controversy surrounding the appointment of Merrill as fire chief.
Tuesday, Councilwoman Tara Hizon made a motion — which Campbell seconded — to rescind the previous motion. Councilman Danny Paggao agreed.
Councilwoman Beth Munns, however, joined with the Servatius, Almberg and Severns to prevent the motion from being rescinded. She explained that the money is available in the fire department’s account, but it’s not “sacred” and can be used to pay salaries if necessary.
“I would rather pay for people than new equipment,” she said.
She said she agreed the truck needs to be replaced, but she believes it can wait.
“So far in what Chief Merrill has presented, I haven’t seen the validity that this is crucial. It’s important but it’s not crucial to saving lives,” she said.
Likewise, Almberg said he believes the truck does need to be replaced, but he just wants to wait until after he gets a chance to examine the budget before spending such a large chunk of money.
“I don’t think two months is going to make that much of a difference. We’ve been driving it for, what, 10 years,” he said. “And I can see supporting the replacement of the vehicle when we know we have the money.”
Servatius he didn’t like that the original motion tied the purchase of the vehicle to union negotiations, but he still wanted to delay the purchase. Severns said his mind hasn’t changed.
The motion failed in a 3-4 vote, with Hizon, Campbell and Paggao voting in support.
Campbell was not happy.
“I think it’s just outrageous that we talked about this for 20 minutes and we put a few dollars over the possibility that somebody can get hurt with this piece of junk we’re telling the firefighters they’ve got to use,” Campbell said. “Our charter, our No. 1 charter as a city council person is to protect the citizens of Oak Harbor and we just put dollars ahead of their protection. To be perfectly honest with you, I think all of you that voted no should be ashamed of yourselves.”
Afterward, Public Works Director Cathy Rosen brought forward a couple of purchase requests, which were added to the agenda by Munns. Rosen explained that City Hall employees noticed the smell of smoke in the office a couple of weeks ago, which led a worker to discover that one of the HVAC systems on the roof had a hole in it and another had a hole starting. She said it would cost $13,700 to replace them.
Campbell questioned Rosen about whether money was available for the purchase and she said it was.
“I cannot not say this,” he said. “The money is available to buy the fire equipment. We’re more worried about somebody’s coolness or hotness in the office, which is important, but we’re not worried about people’s safety.”
In addition, Rosen asked to purchase a $14,000 server to replace an aging server with a broken motherboard.
Both purchases passed unanimously.