CLEARWATER – Clearwater City Council members put the $1.3 million purchase of two new firefighting vehicles on the consent agenda of their Oct. 4 meeting, virtually guaranteeing approval without further debate. But shelling out $13.3 million to replace Fire Station 45 was another matter, especially since the original estimate was around $8 million. The fact that the county will pick up 12 percent of the cost of both the vehicles and the new station, because Clearwater provides fire protection to some unincorporated areas of the county, did not soften the sticker shock the councilmembers felt.
The less expensive of the two vehicles, a heavy-duty front line pumper engine, will be purchased from Pierce Manufacturing, Inc. of Appleton, Wisconsin, for $484,760. The price would have been higher except that the city piggybacked onto a Lake County contract and also received a $15,000 discount for paying cash instead of financing the vehicle.
“The Pierce fire engine is the city of Clearwater Fire and Rescue Department standard for the purpose of training and maintenance,” a fire department memo to the council explains. “Custom components have been added to meet the needs of the fire district and surrounding municipalities.”
The new vehicle will replace the old Engine 50, which has 98,000 miles on its odometer, and that engine will be kept in reserve. Normally, fire department vehicles serve eight to 10 years of front-line service and five years in reserve.
The other vehicle, which is also being bought from Pierce under a Lake County contract, is a heavy-duty front line squad with a price of $775,210. It will replace the current Squad 51, a 2005 model. Normally, the department could have gotten a few more years out of the 2005 squad, but its backup in the reserve fleet has 122,000 miles on its odometer and is so old that some replacement parts are no longer available.
But the proposal that raised the most eyebrows among the councilmembers was the one to replace the current Fire Station 45 on Franklin Street, which was built in 1974 and also serves as the headquarters of fire Chief Robert Weiss and his staff, with a new building nearby, at Court Street and Madison Avenue. The projected cost of the three-story, 32,800-square-foot building is $13,301,250, which is approximately $5 million higher than a previous staff estimate.
“It’s a staggering price,” Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said at the council’s Oct. 1 work session. “I’m just stunned by how much this costs.”
“What bothers me about the chief is that the plans on the $8 million (station) weren’t plans; they were thoughts,” said Mayor George Cretekos.
But Chief Weiss said that the new station will have amenities that the old one lacked, such as adequate parking and areas for drying and decontaminating gear, and it will be able to withstand 150 mile-per-hour winds.
“The new station will have gender-specific facilities, which the current one does not,” Weiss said. “It will have individual, dormitory-style rooms.”
Weiss said that he has tried to hold down the cost of the project, but there are only so many corners he can cut before compromising the effectiveness of a building that is expected to serve the city for the next 40 or 50 years.
“From my perspective as your fire chief, I will tell you that you do need a fire station of this size,” Weiss said. “We’ve tried everything we could to make it as affordable as possible.”
He added that he had even saved a few dollars by eliminating the rubber treads on the stairs and having plain concrete stairs.
Jeff Parker, a spokesman for HDR Engineering, the prime contractor on the project, said that his company may not charge the entire $10,924,121 allocated to it in the $13.3 million estimated cost of the project.
“That’s a guaranteed maximum,” Parker said. “If the final figure is less than that, the rest goes back to the city.”
“We’re in a box,” Mayor Cretekos said, adding that because of the $5 million cost overrun the city might have to postpone or cancel some of its other Penny for Pinellas-funded projects. “I am just really scared of how we got in this position.”
The council then agreed to discuss the matter further at its Oct. 4 meeting.