With cheap land, low interest rates and creative construction, Payson’s newest fire station is a bargain basement marvel. The only question remains if the town will ever have enough money and firefighters to staff it.
No one in the town or fire department can say when crews will take up shop in the 9,000-square-foot, two-bay fire station off Tyler Parkway and Highway 260.
The town does not have any funding in its current budget to staff the station, and a federal grant that could have paid the salaries of new firefighters is frozen in Washington.
“We are working all that out,” said Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi, who added that pending a miracle the new station won’t open before July 1 when the new budget year begins.
Payson Public Works Director LaRon Garrett was a little more optimistic.
“It shouldn’t be too long,” he said Wednesday afternoon standing in the shade of the tan building, which features six bunk rooms, several bathrooms and a massive outdoor deck with sweeping views of the Mogollon Rim.
So far, the town has paid contractor Mike Amon $1.25 million for construction. That leaves a quarter million to buy apparatus for the station. However, new fire trucks cost at least half a million.
In 2005, voters approved a $1.5 million bond initiative to build Fire Station 13, the town’s third station.
The station will cover the east side of town, including the Chaparral Pines and Rim Club subdivisions.
Since the subdivisions’ construction, several fires have leveled homes to their foundations.
Having firefighters closer would shave minutes off response times in the two country clubs. In addition, firefighters/EMTs would arrive at medical emergencies quicker.
Adding another truck also provides backup when the other engines are on call.
And since voters approved the bond, the town must deliver on its promise to build the station, said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans.
Some critics argue the town built the station too soon since it did not have a guarantee it could staff it.
“There will always be people who say we built it too soon or too late,” he said. “There is no optimal time.”
The decision to build last year took advantage of municipal bond rates 50 percent lower then they are today, Evans said. The town’s bond has a 3 percent interest rate.
“If we had waited, the interest would have been more than the cost of the building,” he said.
While the building was constructed on the cheap, the cost of staffing it remains fixed. About 80 percent of the department’s budget goes toward salaries. The town would have to hire nine firefighters to provide a three-man crew around the clock.
Next year’s budget for the fire department is unknown with the state Legislature still working to cut a massive deficit.
“We are being conservative in our approach until we find out what they are going to do to us,” Evans said.
The town hoped to land a federal SAFER grant that would pay firefighters’ salaries for up to three years.
While the town’s application was rejected last year, this year it looked likely the town might receive money after making it through several rounds of cuts.
The program has already notified several towns that they will receive funding. Recently, however, the federal government told those towns the whole program is on hold while it looks at cuts.
Only last year, the federal government doubled funding for the $420 million federal stimulus program to boost the economy.
If the town does not receive SAFER money, deMasi said it would explore other funding options and cost-saving measures, including switching to two-man crews.
Ideally, an engine runs with three or four firefighters, but it can run with only a firefighter and EMT.
Neither the fire department nor council has made any final decisions on switching to two-man crews, deMasi said.
The wait on what will happen with the station is taking its toll.
“It is hard on the firefighters, town staff and community,” deMasi said. “Everyone wants to see it (the new station) happen.”
At Wednesday’s dedication ceremony, the only firefighter using the new station was Battalion Chief Dan Bramble’s two-year-old son, who donned a red firefighter’s costume.