There was plenty of debate and discussion during last week’s April 9 meeting of the Watertown City Council, but few actual decisions made as the council considered a new ordinance that would aid the fire department in recouping expenses, and also began to consider options for replacing the city’s malfunctioning loader.
In the end, the city council decided to wait to make a decision on the ordinance related to fire department billing so that it could discuss the issue further in a workshop, and directed city staff to pursue more options on a lease-to-own option for a new loader, a piece of equipment that costs roughly $150,000.
The fire department billing ordinance was the first item on the agenda, and would officially adopt a practice that the Watertown Fire Department already uses — along with most other fire departments — to collect money to cover departmental costs as they relate to responding to automobile accidents, as well as illegal, intentional or unattended fires.
Fire and rescue services are generally funded through taxes, but additional costs can be incurred regarding vehicle crashes and illegal fires. Stock said the department collects $400 each time it responds to a vehicle crash, regardless of how many hours its services are needed, and can also bill to recoup costs associated with illegal fires. Stock said there typically are fees written in to insurance policies to cover those costs, so in most cases the department is billing insurance companies, not individuals.
Stock also said the department has already been informally using that policy since it was unofficially drafted by the fire board in the mid-90s. However, having the policy codified in city law would make it easier to collect that money in some instances.
“We’ve had it going, but it’s something that’s never been formally adopted,” Stock told the council. “It was hard to follow up on in the past.”
However, several board members expressed at least some hesitation to officially adopt a policy that would bill residents for fire and rescue services that Watertown residents already pay for in their taxes. Steve Washburn was most vocal in his concerns, saying he felt uneasy about charging residents for fire services in instances when the resident may have made an honest mistake by leaving a fire unattended for a few moments, and councilor Michael Walters agreed.
Stock stressed, however, that language in the policy would specifically target fires that are illegal or that were started intentionally and left unattended. In some cases, Stock said, the department has responded to intentional fires at the same property multiple times that have gotten out of hand.
“That takes a lot of time, and a lot of manpower, and a lot of costs for everybody,” Stock told the council. “Those are the ones where we need to be able to go back and try to recoup that cost.”
Councilor Stephen Crowder voiced his support for the measure, especially because it would collect insurance money in most cases, not bill individuals. Councilor Adam Pawelk also expressed general support for the measure, saying he felt comfortable with the policy because people who are responsible shouldn’t by paying to cover the services provided to those who are not responsible or abuse the system.
While none of the councilors seemed opposed to the policy as it related to illegal fires, the biggest concerns stemmed from the fact that a generally responsible citizen who truly makes a careless mistake by leaving a fire unattended for a few moments could be tagged with a bill for fire department services.
However, Crowder countered that argument by saying that a responsible citizen most likely already has insurance anyway, which is designed to cover those types of fees. Mayor Charlotte Johnson said she was generally inclined to listen to Stock’s advice since he is the one that deals with such situations and knows best how they should be handled, but given the discussions among the council members, felt it was best to continue those discussions during a workshop.
The city council also began exploring options for the purchase or lease of a new loader, which the city uses for snow removal, loading salt trucks, light construction, and other assorted uses.
The city’s current 1986 loader recently suffered a malfunction that left it unsafe for an operator to use. Operators using the equipment last month for snow removal reported headaches from fumes in the cab resulting from an antifreeze leak.
Repairs simply to fix the most recent malfunction are estimate to run at $18,000, on top of an estimated $40,000 for other known repairs that the equipment already needs. Given those numbers, the city began to explore options for its replacement.
The city received quotes from three companies on lease options for a loader, including a five-year lease in which the city would own the machine outright at the end, and a five-year lease in which the city would buy down its payment over five years, and then have the option to pay a guaranteed residual price for the machine at the end.
The first option would include a roughly $27,000 per year payment over five years, with the city buying the machine for $1 at the end. The other primary option would include a smaller $15,000 per year payment for five years, with the option to buy the machine for $75,000 at the end.
Ultimately, the city council decided option No. 2 was preferable because of the smaller annual payment. The city has already budgeted $30,000 per year for a new loader as part of the new Capital Improvement Plan, so by spending roughly $15,000 per year less than was budgeted, the intent is that after five years, that $75,000 in budget savings could be used to purchase the machine.
Ultimately, the first option with the higher annual payments and outright ownership at the end would be about $15,000 cheaper in the long run than the lower monthly payments with the $75,000 optional purchase at the end. However, the lower annual payments would lessen the city’s financial risk and be would preferable from a cash management perspective in the event other significant equipment needs arise during that time.
While the council was discussing financing preferences in general, it did not actually select a quote from any of the three companies. Instead, the city is expected to go back to each of the three companies to get a better apples-to-apples comparison between the companies now that the council’s preferences are known.
Contact Matt Bunke at [email protected]