WEST ALEXANDRIA — After more than a year of debate within West Alexandria Village Council, construction of a new firehouse was finally approved on Monday, Dec. 18 — however, Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Hickey, who is currently on leave due to a “hostile work environment,” is leading a motion to reverse council’s decision.
During the council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 16, Hickey cited unease with the construction plan as his reason.
A levy was put on the March 15, 2016, ballot for the Village of West Alexandria Fire/EMS. The ballot language stated, “An additional tax for the benefit of the Village of West Alexandria for the purpose of providing and maintaining fire apparatus, appliances, buildings, or sites therefor, or sources of water supply and materials therefor, or the establishment and maintenance of lines of fire alarm telegraph, or the payment of firefighting companies or permanent, part-time, or volunteer firefighting, emergency medical service, administrative, or communications personnel to operate the same, including the payment of any employer contributions required for for such personnel under section 145.48 or 742.34 of the Revised Code, or the purchase of ambulance equipment, or the provision of ambulance, paramedic, or other emergency medical services operated by a fire department or firefighting company at a rate not exceeding 3 mills for each one dollar valuation, which amount to $0.30 for each one hundred dollars of valuation, for continuing period of time, commencing in 2016, first due in calendar year 2017.”
The levy passed, with 56.53 percent voting for the levy, and 43.47 percent voting against the levy.
Before the January council meeting, Mayor Carol Lunsford and Fire Chief Jeff Shafer shared their excitement that the building passed and shared some of the history of the levy.
“The residents pay nothing for fire protection, but the reason for the levy is that the Firemen’s Association would have built the building, but we were unable to maintain it,” Chief Shafer explained. “We would have had to give that back to the village, so they could maintain the building. That being said, the Association purchased the land that the building is going to be built on, and the lot behind it was donated.”
Mayor Lunsford added, “We need this building for other things. Once this building is empty, by then, we can move our police department out here and get them out where people can see them.”
“It’s important to note that currently we pay to rent for the police. So that is an additional cost for the village,” Chief Shafer said.
According to Lunsford, the levy will raise $55,000 a year, which has already started collecting. Some costs have already been removed, such as the auditor’s fee. Now, the village simply has to pay back the bonds.
When the levy passed, the plan was to do a $1.2 million station for around $48,000 a year. According to Chief Shafer, they could have gotten that deal for 30 years at two percent. They set up an appointment with USDA on May 11, 2016. They reviewed the process and started the application, but ran into a problem, because the land was not deeded to the village. The Firemen’s Association is not allowed to own the land the village’s building is on.
The land came into the village’s name on March 17, 2017, a year after the levy originally passed.
“The holdup was that the land was not in the village’s name. Our village solicitor at the time would not allow for us to apply for the USDA loan until that happened. Basically, we were put on hold. We could have got a temporary agreement, but the solicitor wanted us to wait for the official deed. So at that point, all the money stopped. We’re having council meetings and the solicitor was telling us to not talk about it until the land was deeded,” Chief Shafer said.
“We get to the point where everything is deeded. If the process would have went as planned, we would have been in that building for one year, as of January. We should have been in that building today. That was the deadline from the WDC group.”
Shafer explained that at that point discussion on money began, as the council tried to decide how much money to allocate, as costs have increased while the project was halted. After a meeting with the attorney, WDC, and the Village Administrator it was decided that the building would be funded through bonds, which can be a lengthy process.
“We procrastinated so long that the interest rates go up. So you spend a little bit more to get a little bit less,” Chief Shafer said. “So we asked if we wanted to downsize the building. Around that time, we got a new council member, because somebody resigned.”
Lunsford added, “He’s a very vocal person and he wanted us to slow down. He and a couple other council members wanted to form a fire district, which takes a large amount of time. I don’t have any feelings either way, but I want to get this building built. I didn’t think it was the time to be talking about it, maybe down the road, but let’s get the building built. That is what came up every meeting.
“The ordinance that we finally did pass was presented in November and we voted on it in November, December, and we had a special council meeting.”
Shafer added, “We had outgoing council members who wanted to make sure it got done. They need a lot of credit for that. It had to go three meetings, so we had the special meeting and it got approved. Ray Waldeck made a comment during the meeting where he said that if we do not start construction, we will never pass another levy in this town, and he was right. That being said, we finally got it passed, so we’re looking at $800,000 to build.”
Chief Shafer met with WDC (the building firm chosen by council). There they discussed building scenarios and plans for the newly approved firehouse. West Alexandria Fire Department Captain John Glander presented the different building options during the council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 16.
Captain Glander summarized that the building options they are considering are to sacrifice on square footage, with the intention of adding more later, to build a shell and add amenities at a later date, or a “middle ground.”
“We met with the group, and first off, we would like to say thank you very much for your approval of $800,000 for the building, but the original design was for a little more than that,” he said. “We took a look at the design and said, where can we save costs, make this a little more functional, and take out some of the amenities we may not need? We asked the group to see what we can do to fit this into the budget that you all approved.
“One of the thing we looked at is the easiest way to do that would be to cut square footage. When you go to build a building, square footage is cheap if you go to do the entire project at once, but if you think to add it on later it becomes expensive. A few other things we talked about, again, reduction of square footage is something we are trying not to do, but we may have to look into that to get where we need to be.”
Glander added, while they might entertain a reduction of square footage, the building still has to fit specific equipment and vehicles.
“The other option is to ask what we actually have to have, since it is a public building. If we said, in the interior, what if the space is not finished? Doesn’t have all the walls, electric, and all that stuff, but we can add it later. The problem with this building is it has to be built under prevailing wage, no doubt about it. When we do that, there are certain requirements. We have to have handicap accessible restrooms.
“Does it have to have a training room? No. Does it have to have a kitchen? No, but if we build the square footage in the shell we can add all that later, either through donations from the department, donations externally, or we can build it ourselves — whatever that may be. So, we’re looking at options. The plan is to bring that back to you, here in about a month, so we can have a discussion.
“We are looking at a lot of options here, so we can make this fit into the budget your provided. At the same time, let’s make smart moves on this.”
At the end of the council meeting, as the last item of new business, newly elected council member (and on-leave Assistant Fire Chief) Hickey said, “I would like to open a discussion on the possibility of drafting a resolution to rescind the affirmative vote for the new firehouse.”
In order to bring new village solicitor Brian Muenchenbach up to date, council member Doug Crouse said, “On Dec. 18, we had a special meeting to approve the total budget for the county, it was stated that way. They threw the motion in to do this $800,000 bond. It was not an emergency ordinance, it was an ordinance that could be done with any normal meeting, which would be this meeting, but they voted it in.
“I think it was illegal to begin with. If you do it in three readings, it would be three consecutive regular meetings.”
Holly Robbins added, “It also eliminates the new council people from the decision.”
“Is there a time issue on this, because you’re going to start over with the readings, in my opinion,” Muenchenbach asked.
“That’s fine. I don’t have a problem with that,” Crouse said. “We’re probably going to get to the same end, I know that, but there were other things that were pending. We talked about a joint district, to bring the townships in. We have a good working relationship with the townships and we had a meeting with them, and they were pretty much on board to advance this agenda.
“Then, all of a sudden, they had four votes, which they knew they had four votes. They knew too, come January, they weren’t going to have four votes. So, on a special meeting they made this motion.”
Muenchenbach said, “If it truly wasn’t an emergency, it should have been discussed during a regular meeting.”
Hickey explained, “My reasoning is because tonight was truly a disappointment. I have been in on the discussion of a new firehouse since day one. We were looking at a 50 year plan, what fits this village for the next 50 years. Combining the squad and the fire and having a building that suits the needs for the next 50 years.
“So, we’re going to gut the plan and do all this after the fact, on who’s dime? Volunteers great — I volunteer a lot of projects up at the old firehouse and that is all well and good, but a shell of a building with no interior? No, an industrial kitchen is $20,000. Our department raises a lot of money and has done a lot of good things. This is a golden opportunity for the entire community to share in the responsibility of the building.”
Crouse added, “It takes the responsibility off the taxpayers just a bit.”
“That is the only thing I’m looking at. I want this building more than anybody, but we need something that is going to serve this community for a lot of years,” Hickey said.
They approved a motion to draft a resolution rescinding the affirmative decision 4-1, as council member Waldeck was not present during the vote and council member Jerry Carter voted against the motion.
As the motion made was to draft a resolution rescinding the affirmative decision, as of now the firehouse is still approved, but, according to Mayor Lunsford, the village attorney is looking into the motion. At press time, Lunsford said the attorney was looking into the motion to make sure it “can be voted on,” and if so, council will vote on the resolution during the regular February meeting.
That meeting will be held on Tuesday, Feb. 13, at 7 p.m. in the West Alexandria EMS Station.
Reach Kelsey Kimbler at 937-683-4061 or on Twitter @KKimbler_RH