Between the Lines

Between the Lines By David Lias Should any South Dakota community contemplating the construction of a new fire hall be curious about the steps it should not, we repeat not, take in that process, it can look to Vermillion.

It appears after the action of the Vermillion City Council Monday that we will be getting a new $1.2 million fire hall here � whether we like it or not.

We have noted in earlier commentary that the present Vermillion Fire Hall, which has housed firefighting equipment since at least 1946, has probably outlived its usefulness. We'd like to see the city fire trucks housed in a more contemporary, more efficient structure someday.

But the fire hall that eventually will be built in Vermillion, we believe, is flawed in many ways:

* It's too expensive. Bob Lee, the fire station's architect, warned the city council earlier this year that it didn't have enough money to construct the building that it ordered him to design. When the city first hired Lee, it told him there was $1,150,000 available for the building. Last November, Lee told the city council that he believed the new fire hall would carry a price tag of about $1,165,000.

In January, however, Lee informed the council that soil problems would drive up the cost of the building to approximately $1,190,000, which is $40,000 more than the budget he was given to work with.

* Warning signs were ignored. The city was hoping that $1 million in second penny sales tax revenue would be enough to pay for the structure. The architect's estimates were a clear warning, however, that proceeding with the concept of a masonry building at a site with soil problems was fraught with economic peril. Adding to this sense of danger was the fact that not once, but twice, was the city's request for $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds denied by the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

* No other building alternatives were explored. In January, the city council, at the urging of the architect, temporarily suspended further development of the fire station's design. This would have been an ideal time for the city to explore other, less expensive, building options. In November 1999, Alderman Dick Burbach requested the architect estimate the cost of erecting a steel rather than masonry building as a fire hall.

Shortly after that request, Lee informed the council by letter that a steel building wouldn't be feasible. The city would lose all the cost advantages of steel by constructing such a building following the masonry building's general design, Lee said, and it also would require a completely different floor plan.

Alderman Joe Grause, whose personal research has discovered several communities being served by less expensive steel buildings as fire halls, was either verbally attacked by Mayor William Radigan or ignored by fellow aldermen each time he suggested that a steel building may better fit Vermillion's needs.

* The design is excessive. A new floor plan may have been a wise move on the part of the city council. The building's five bays to house fire trucks and four bays to house three ambulances and the grass fire truck are understandable. Rest rooms and showers are understandable, too, especially in this age when firefighters may be exposed to hazardous substances.

Everyone in support of the design, from firefighters right on up to aldermen, went overboard, however, by including such items as a meeting room, a training room, a weight room, a kitchen, a communication room, a laundry and two bedrooms in the structure. It makes one wonder if the city's next move will be the establishment of a full-time, paid fire department rather than the volunteer force we have now.

Steve Harding, special projects coordinator of the state's CDBG program, noted in June, in a letter informing the city that its $200,000 request was refused a second time, that "Your fire hall is substantially larger and has more features than those typically funded using CDBG funds. By reducing the size of your project, you could complete the building for the amount of funds you have in place and still have a functional facility."

* We have no say. It appears that the Monday's decision by the city council to go ahead with the project is a done deal. Vermillion taxpayers apparently have no means of referring this decision to a public vote, even though in June Radigan assured Grause that such an option would be available. Members of the council were surprised Monday when, midway through the highly complex discussions on whether or not to proceed with the project, they learned that research by City Attorney Martin Weeks indicates that citizens can't go to the polls to decide if over $1 million of their money is being wisely spent.

Several members indicated Monday that they couldn't believe that taxpayers don't have the right to vote on a project of such magnitude. There also seemed to be a sense in the council chambers, at least at the beginning of discussion on the fire hall issue, that what ever decision was made Monday would be a "safe" one, because if the people disagreed, they could vote it down.

So what happened? After debate that lasted over an hour, the council settled on a solution which clearly lacks the governing body's faith. An affirmative vote by Radigan broke a four-aye, four-nay vote of the aldermen. The fire hall will be built, by removing $92,300 of exterior work from the bid, and by also deducting components totaling $27,900 from the building.

The exterior work will be bid next year. The delay isn't to save money, however. The delay will allow the city to utilize the CDBG funds. It was noted at Monday's meeting that by next year, inflation will likely increase the price of those exterior components so that all of the $125,000 of the CDBG will have to be utilized � another excessive utilization of taxpayers' funds.

Is this any way to build a fire station?

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