The Payson Town Council has approved plans to sell $1.5 million in bonds to build a third fire station — a low-cost design that will have a big impact on the town payroll, but cut response times on the east side of town.
The town has already closed on a piece of land off Highway 260 near the entrance to Chaparral Pines for the station, which should cut response times by several crucial minutes in some areas — especially in several the luxury, golf-course developments.
The town hopes to take advantage of cheap land and construction prices to build a station much more cheaply than its first two stations. The town will likely seek bids in December, start construction in March and finish the station within about a year, said Public Works Director LaRon Garrett.
The council approved the issuance of the bonds at its regular council meeting last week.
Councilor Mike Vogel said cutting response times could save lives.
“Everybody is keyed on getting to the fire, but for me it’s not so much that as it is the medical. You cut three or four minutes off a heart attack, you’ve got a chance. You don’t, it’s just a gamble. For me, that’s the significant part.”
However, even if the construction proves a bargain, the council will have to figure out how to come up with the roughly $1 million annually needed to staff the new station.
The town has struggled financially for the past two years, all but eliminating its street construction program, laying off employees, and freezing salaries and hiring.
The fire department’s budget already exceeds $3.5 million annually, with just two stations stations. The town’s total general fund operating budget stands at about $16 million, with half going to police and fire.
However, the town still hopes to get federal grants to pay for the extra firefighters for the first one to three years.
The federal government has long funded such public protection grants to help towns hire firefighters. Arizona Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, whose district includes Rim Country, pushed to get a provision to eliminate the local match for the firefighter grants included in the federal stimulus package.
The surprise announcement of the third fire station just over a month ago provoked some criticism, in part because Payson had already teamed up for a federal stimulus grant to build a fire station with the Hellsgate Fire Department that protects Star Valley. Payson had applied for the grant, which would have built a $5-million fire station and training facility in Star Valley. Crews from both Hellsgate and Payson would have manned the station, which would have also reduced response times to the eastern portion of Payson.
Hellsgate officials said they were surprised when Payson decided to go it alone on a fire station that would cover an overlapping area. However, Payson officials said that Hellsgate negotiators had been inflexible about key details of the joint project.
In any case, Payson didn’t get the federal stimulus money for the joint fire station project, which means building a third fire station offered the only good way to reduce response times along the town’s eastern edge.
“The joint application with Hellsgate, that’s gone,” said Vogel. “There’s a time limit on everything and we’ve exceed that.”
Vogel acknowledged that coming up with the money to staff the station will present a challenge, especially if the town doesn’t land one of the federal grants intended to pay salaries of new firefighters for the first two or three years.
“But even if you can’t staff it right now, I don’t know of an easier way to save $300,000 on a building” than going through with construction now.
Vogel said the costs are justified by reduction in response times and the chance that lives could be saved.
“People are going to bring up the negatives, no matter what you do. But at least the people I’ve talked to, when you tell them how much you can save on the building cost, they start looking at it a little differently.”
Vogel said he hopes construction will start soon after the first of the year. “A number of things have to fall into line first,” he noted.
“I would sure hope we can get started by January, but government takes a lot longer than anything else.”
Eventually, noted Vogel, the town will probably have to consider another bond issue or collect money from developers to build a fourth fire station out by Airport Road. The town recently approved a general plan designation for apartments, an industrial area and homes up on Airport Road near the runway, which would be served by fire and paramedic crews based in the existing fire station on East Rancho Road.
“I look at that and think we need another fire station up there. But generally speaking, when you get further away from people who have money, it doesn’t become quite as important. I’d love to see another one up there because we really do need one — but that’s probably a ways out.”