A replacement facility for an aging west Cobb fire station could get one step closer to reality on Tuesday under a proposal to finance the project’s $6.5 million price tag.
County finance director Bill Volckmann is seeking commissioner approval to finance on a tax-exempt basis the cost to construct and equip a new Fire Station 17 on Barrett Parkway. The new location is a tenth of a mile north of the existing Station 17 on Barrett Parkway north of Dallas Highway. The county purchased the 3.4-acre property in 2017.
By financing the fire station over a 10-year term, Volckmann says, the county would be pursuing a cost-effective route to pay for the fire station but still get it constructed on an accelerated schedule, with all costs coming out of the county’s fire fund.
Built in the 1960s, Fire Station 17 is one of the county’s five remaining stations built within the decade that is in the process of being replaced due to being outdated, according to Cobb Fire Chief Randy Crider, the county’s acting public safety director. Such stations, he said, were not built with workout facilities to keep firefighters in shape, while the dormitory-style sleeping area and bathroom facilities of the old fire station will be supplanted by accommodations for both male and female firefighters.
If commissioners approve the financing measure Tuesday, Crider said a proposed construction contract for the project could be presented next month, with the aim of having the building ready by late summer 2020. He said the old station would be demolished, with the next use of the property determined by county commissioners.
Crider said the land for the new station was bought at a cost between $200,000 and $300,000. Its appraised value in 2018 was $132,720, according to records from the Cobb County Tax Assessor’s Office.
COULD STATION FINANCING HELP ADDRESS PAY ISSUES?
As fire chief, Crider oversees a department with an annual budget of about $91 million funded by a special property tax on county homeowners who are served by the fire department. Financing the new fire station over the span of a decade, he said, would “provide more flexibility to the Board of Commissioners to address some needs that obviously have been exposed out there with public safety wanting an increase in pay.”
“And that’s not just for public safety only — it’s been a few years since county employees have had a raise,” Crider said, “(but) we in public safety are experiencing a lot of our firefighters and police officers leaving to go to other departments because they’ve actually increased their pay.”
The department has seen 26 firefighters resign since January 2018, Crider says, with public safety pay being one factor in the departure.
County commissioners at their March 26 meeting were met with an over-capacity crowd that included Cobb firefighters seated in the front rows. The high attendance featured those in and out of uniform, and those also in support of police, EMS and other services following weeks of community outcry over pay rates for such personnel.
Among those who spoke at the meeting was a former county firefighter who said he resigned from the department in February after 10 years on the force, with pay the primary issue behind his decision. Matt Babcock said he and other firefighters were leaving for other departments or private-sector jobs with better pay and benefits, creating firefighter shortages that lead to fire engines being manned by three firefighters instead of at least four when fully staffed.
Crider said his department has about 700 firefighter positions occupied and 80 firefighter positions vacant. Though Cobb will see 43 members in the new recruit class begin training Monday, those recruits won’t be ready to serve at one of the county’s 29 fire stations for 11 months.
“We are understaffed right now in the fire stations, and we are having to pay some overtime to staff our apparatus, but one thing we’re not doing is jeopardizing any of our response capabilities,” Crider said. “We have not shut down any equipment nor do we plan to shut down any equipment, because leaving some of these positions vacant and not filling them creates us some revenue to pay overtime — we don’t like to pay overtime, but where we are right now with staffing, we’re having to in order to maintain the 911 response coverage that our citizens desire and deserve to have.”
Cobb commissioners will consider the fire station financing measure and other issues at their 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday in the Cobb Government Building.