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Newcastle fire station repairs imminent

New board members rethink district’s complex finances
By: Andrew Westrope, Journal staff writer
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The Newcastle Fire Protection District may have to wait a little longer for a new fire station, as its board of directors intends to trim the budget and repair the old one first.
Following a series of public snafus, including controversial spending and the 90-year-old Cypress Street firehouse being labeled structurally unsafe, Newcastle citizens elected three new fire board members in November and voted down a measure that would have stemmed a recently approved parcel tax to raise income for the district.
The two remaining members of the previous board have since resigned, Leonard Orsolini for medical reasons in December and Bill Calkins for family reasons last week. The recently elected members appointed Eric Sprouse on Jan. 10 to fill in for Orsolini until the next election, and they will review applications for Calkins’ replacement at their next meeting on Wednesday.
Chairman Dave Ward, Vice Chair Jim Jordan, and Joni Elder were sworn in on Dec. 13, and Jordan said the board’s primary focus since then has been the assessment of damages to the current fire station and the creation of a plan to bring it back up to code. He said an engineer proposed installing several lag bolts to reinforce the south wall to make the building safe for residence, and further repairs might include replacing headers, installing new studs, and making general improvements to the station’s interior.
Ward said he went to the station with construction engineers the day after he was sworn in and learned that it could probably be repaired for less than $50,000. He also clarified a public misconception that the place had been condemned in October.
“The repairs were supposed to be made years ago and weren’t made, and the county did yellow tag it, but it was never condemned,” he said. “(Firemen) could go in and get the equipment and so on. They couldn’t live in the structure any longer. Until the repairs … are finished, they can’t.”
According to Jordan, the previous fire board had signed a three-year lease on two modular trailers in which the firemen might live, but the contract included a stipulation that the trailers were not to be used as living quarters. Now the district is tied to a three-year lease for two trailers it can’t use, and Jordan said the firemen currently live in a separate camper trailer in the station parking lot.
After a meeting to discuss budget issues with Battalion Chief Jay Love on Monday, board member Joni Elder said the useless lease was one of a long list of extraneous expenses incurred by the previous board. She guessed the 2011-12 fiscal year lost about $78,000 to unnecessary expenses, including $10-14,000 on the trailers, $267 for beanies and embroidery and about $1,000 for t-shirts.
“If you can’t afford tires for your truck, you don’t go buying those kinds of things. It’s just foolish spending,” she said. “We have to get a handle on this budget first.”
Former Vice Chair Bob Stearns rejected the notion that the board had wasted money when he was a member, and he thinks the new board is wrong if it believes repairs can make the station safe for firefighters for any length of time.
“We didn’t have a lot of money to do any kind of big renovations … We did repairs as necessary, and we knew we couldn’t stay in that station, because it’s falling down,” he said. “I was called a liar, I was called a thief, been accused of trying to deal with Elliot Rose on a piece of property, which is not true … and that bothers the heck out of me, because I and the board had done nothing but try to help this fire department.”
He also said he worries that the firefighters are losing morale, but Capt. Greg Kirk said he didn’t feel that way. Kirk said he couldn’t speak for the previous board as to whether or not they let the station fall into disrepair, and the firemen have yet to be asked for input on a prospective new fire station, but he is “cautiously optimistic” about the fire district’s future.
“The board needs to work on how to get us back in the station, and (I met with them), and they seem to be taking practical steps to make that happen,” he said.
Ward expects the firefighters to be able to move back into the building within the next two weeks, depending on how long it takes to clear the necessary permits. The remaining repairs will continue for two or three months beyond that, and a new station will have to wait until the district’s budget is in better shape.
“We have some financial difficulties right now, but the last thing we’re thinking about doing is altering the firefighters’ wages or their benefits,” said Ward. “And we are going to build a new station, but inheriting this financial train wreck, it’s probably going to be two years before we can get back on solid financial ground and break ground on a new fire station.”
Ward added that the board has already shortlisted two potential sites for a new station but cannot yet make an offer. Past estimates on the cost of the project have ranged from $1.5 million to $4.5 million, to be funded by 40 percent of the parcel tax passed in March, with another 40 percent for firemen’s wages and benefits and 20 percent for general maintenance. Jordan, Elder and Ward have different ideas about the bottom line for a new station, but in any case, a specific figure will depend on what the district’s budget will allow.
“We want something like Placer Fire have. We’ve toured numerous stations already, and we’ll build a station living quarters, very nice, for less than $1 million,” said Ward. “This district can’t afford (a multi-million dollar station). We just can’t, with our tax base.”