Debate over fire station 5 heats up

a City Scene Barrie insight – the debate that’s brewing over interim fire station 5 could be the first real fissure in the new council, and a test to the mayor’s consensus-building skills

by John Devine
City Scene Barrie

Barrie’s new city council hit its 100-day anniversary recently, and so far it appears to be a more cohesive, less rancorous bunch than the preceding group.
Mayor Jeff Lehman arrived in office promising more teamwork and civility, and if first impressions count, it is a more civil and united bunch. The budget that council adopted on Monday (April 4) was reflective of this, with a number of councillors praising the mayor for his leadership, and commenting that the budget process was a vast improvement over the recent past.

Mayor Jeff Lehman

Lehman has also displayed a solid understanding of procedural rules, allowing some leeway here, and reining in debate there. But there are storm clouds on the horizon that will present a real test to his consensus-building skills.
It gusted through general committee two weeks ago when spending on an interim fire station to serve southwest Barrie was deferred, and it rumbled the seats a little on Monday when a majority of council supported a motion to refer the matter to the community services committee for further review.
The pending debate could be a schism that exposes fault lines on this council between those who insist the city needs to move forward on identified needs, like fire services, and accept the related costs, and those advocating a slow down and review approach. And it’s the mayor’s biggest challenge to date.
Through some nimble procedural footwork, Ward 7 Coun. John Brassard, chair of the Master Fire Plan committee, avoided the committee route and instead managed to get the conversation tabled, meaning it will be back before council at its next meeting, planned for a week this coming Monday.
“Tabling the motion will hopefully allow councillors time to get accurate information about what was in the Master Fire Plan report to make an informed decision, and not base their decisions on the type of information that they received last night (Monday), which was presented completely out of context,” Brassard told City Scene Barrie.

He was referring to information shown by Ward 1 Coun. Bonnie Ainsworth that seemed to question the rationale for an immediate fire station in southwest Barrie.
“Perhaps they will find out the truth about the fact that there were 115 times in 2010 that we did not meet the response standard set out by council, and not just six to eight dots on a map that they were shown (Monday) night.”
The City has adopted a response-time standard of having 10 firefighters on the scene of a call within ten minutes, 90 percent of the time. That’s not happening in southwest Barrie, says Brassard.
Regarding the information she presented, Ainsworth told City Scene Barrie, “I believe I have been able to demonstrate there is no more urgent reason to put a temporary station in Barrie’s southwest than any other corner of the city, and think perhaps we could really wait for a build.”
She added, “I am looking for a due diligence meeting of council or a committee of council for a factual conversation discussing risks associated with not adding 20 new firefighters and a rental station, with our fire department and others interested.”
This position seems to put her, and councillors supporting a review, at odds with Brassard and others who maintain the fire plan is a comprehensive document that clearly states a station in southwest Barrie is an immediate priority.
The document cost taxpayers $50,000. Council approved it in 2009, by consent, said Brassard.
“The Master Fire Plan was, in large part, a risk-assessment exercise that took two years to complete, and recommended that there was an immediate need for fire station 5. As a result, I hope that members of council will see that there is no need to spend time, waste taxpayer money, and employ additional staff resources for the same outcome,” he said.
Based on his comments that a temporary station will be built, and 20 firefighters hired to staff it, one could assume the mayor supports the direction of the fire plan. The funds, after all, have been approved – they’re sitting in reserves waiting to be used. And until the election, and the return of Ainsworth, little concern, at least not publicly, had been raised about the direction of the Master Fire Plan.
As late as last summer, Brassard was indicating interim station 5 was on track, and a staff report prepared then laid out the background and the road ahead.
Ainsworth said it’s not her job to accept the fire plan as the “Holy Grail of all things fire,” and sees it as a reference document that provides recommendations.
“I don’t feel it negates the need for sober second thought and further deliberation by those elected to make decisions on behalf of the public.”
The fire plan does come with a hefty cost, which no doubt lies behind the reservations being expressed. It’s a 10-year strategy for fire services in Barrie, proposing short-term, intermediate and long-term goals.
It envisions an annual fire department operations budget of $28.5 million by 2018, up from a budget in 2009, the year the plan was completed, of $17 million. It will cost $1.6 million to hire the 20 firefighters to staff the station.
Additional costs identified included $394,000 to acquire land for the station, $450,000 for design, and a total of almost $3.5 million for construction.
However, this is for a permanent facility. Due to a shortage of appropriate land in southwest Barrie, council approved building an interim facility at a cost of $2.1 million, including staffing costs, and $600,000 for a pumper truck. The plan is to build the permanent station in the annexed Innisfil lands some years hence (five or so).
Similar costs are anticipated for the construction of station 6 to serve northwest Barrie. The fire plan presented a proposed 2012 construction budget of $2.7 million for station 6, and a further $1 million in 2013.
So, it’s easy to understand the reservations about spending this kind of money. But that’s what a municipality does – spend taxpayers’ money on identified needs. The price tag for improved fire services pales in comparison to the cost of the new surface water treatment plant: $150 million if anyone’s counting.
This is a debate that could easily slide into rancour and division and the mayor will need a deft hand to manage and guide it. It comes down to this: does council, and the city, move ahead with identified and approved strategies, or is everything up for some sober second thought, and the associated costs and delays that come with it?

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