Council Holds Study Session on Firehouse Funds
The University City Fire Department is asking University City to make up a funding shortfall totaling $674,494 to build a new firehouse.
Members of city council discussed the pros and cons of releasing more money for a new firehouse in University City at a special council study session held Monday night.
Twice last month, the council postponed approving the additional funds after several members said they wanted to hold a study session to review the matter more closely.
The new firehouse is slated to be built on Vernon and Westgate Avenues. It would replace Engine House No. 1 on Delmar.
The fire department is asking the city to make up a funding shortfall of $674,494. The money is in addition to $200,000 the council already approved for a grant match.
An unexpected amount
Ward 1 Councilmember Terry Crow noted the amount being sought is "quadruple" what the city thought about putting into the firehouse.
University City Fire Chief Don Miner said the new firehouse would add a training room and facilities, and administrative offices that are currently housed in City Hall. The firehouse was slated to measure 16,000 square feet and include five engine bays.
Miner said that any changes to the firehouse design would have to be approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and would push back the timeline for completing construction on the firehouse.
Ward 1 Councilmember Stephen Kraft spoke out in support of allocating the additional funds. He said a 16,000-square-foot or more firehouse would--according to his calculations--cost $208 or $209 per square foot. He said that because of the federal grant money, it will only cost the city $52 per square foot.
"Can you build a firehouse anywhere for $52 a square foot? Can you build a house for $52 a square foot?" Kraft asked no one in particular.
He said constructing a firehouse for $52 a square foot is "a discount."
"I think it's irresponsible for us to not take advantage of this," Kraft said. "If we don't build it, eventually the U City citizens are going to have to fund it, or they are going to have to come up with a way to fund it, and they're not going to do it for $52 a square foot."
Sooner or later?
Kraft said University City will have to build a firehouse someday, and it makes sense to go forward with the project.
"I don’t think we’re going to get a better deal than this," he said.
Ward 2 Councilmember Lynn Ricci voiced hesitation on approving the additional funds for the firehouse.
"I'm gun-shy in this particular project," Ricci said.
"Is there any way that this $674,000 shortfall can somehow be lessened?" she asked. "We're just asking for extra dollars for the very same project."
Ricci asked if there was any room to take nonessentials out of the firehouse budget and then add them back in as the city can afford them.
She also wanted to know if the city had to come up with the entire $874,494 at one time or if the money be paid over a series of budget periods.
City Manager Lehman Walker said it was his belief the city needed to come up with the entire sum in a specified period of time.
"It's not something that we can phase over years," he said.
Ricci concurred that $52 a square foot was a bargain, but added, "I'm tentative."
Reasons for shortfall
Miner told the council last month that the need for additional money came to light in July as the fire department was working on the design of the new firehouse.
City staff has recommended approval—saying the money should come out of city reserves.
Once the funding is in place and a contractor hired, Miner said construction of the new firehouse should take nine months.
A little background
In July 2009, University City submitted a grant application to build a new firehouse to replace Engine House No. 1.
- The original request was for $3,149,178 with a $200,000 commitment from the city, for a total of $3,349,178.
- The city was awarded $2,612,197, which is $536,981 less than originally requested. In addition, there has been some cost increases during the delay of the project.
- The fire department is requesting additional funding from University City in the amount of $674,494 to complete the project.
Grant in limbo
The grant was thrown into limbo in July 2010 after FEMA began investigating claims that the grant application contained false or misleading information. The main allegation was that the fire department’s representation of Engine House No. 1 as structurally unsound was not supported.
In March 2011, the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security cleared the way for the project to continue. A news release stated a FEMA engineer recommended the $2.6 million in grant money awarded to University City, "remain intact."
According to the press release, the 2009 grant application by then University City Fire Chief Steve Olshwanger said the fire station at 6801 Delmar Blvd. had “extensive mold and mildew,” and was unsafe and uninhabitable because it is was structurally unsound. Olshwanger is now the fire chief of the Maryland Heights Fire Protection District.
A FEMA engineer inspected the fire station on December 15, 2010. The engineer stated in his report that he found "minor mistakes in the application," but "none of the applicant’s answers could be seen as egregious, evasive or purposefully misleading.”
The University City Police Department is slated to take over the Delmar firehouse once the new fire station is built. It is not clear why the firehouse is safe for police to use, when the grant application claims the building is unsafe.