Town Council, Fire Department seek ways to fund projects

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 5:45pm
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The Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, seeking financial assistance on a fire engine refit and upgrades to the aging Fire Barn, recently reached out to the Town Council to see if there were any funds available to do those projects.

In the end, the Council and officers from the Fire Department agreed on a kind of compromise. If the Fire Department uses donations to pay for the engine upgrade, the Council said it would support going to the town voters to approve a bond that would reimburse the department.

Council members also said they will put forward a motion at the Financial Town Meeting on Monday that would allow the use of $75,000 from the town’s infrastructure fund to pay for the capital expenses of shoring up the Fire Barn and paying for an engineering plan for a new building on the property.

Block Island Volunteer Fire Department Chief Kirk Littlefield, who called in to the virtual meeting from the Fire Barn, said the department needed about $200,000 for an upgrade to Engine 2. Capital improvement projects throughout the town have been defunded in this year’s budget.

“What is the timeline on this,” asked Councilor Martha Ball.

“The engine has a build slot to be refit on Sept. 15,” said Littlefield. The refit would be done on the mainland.

Lt. Chris Hobe, also on the phone, said “Right now, [the engine] has quite a few problems. This item needs to be done to protect our community, our people. We need every piece of equipment to be 100 percent.”

“How long will the refit take?” asked Lacoste.

Hobe said “maybe two months, into three months.”

Hobe also noted “the [Block Island Volunteer Fire] building is in need of repair. We need a new building down the road,” but the “main concern tonight is the funding for the truck.” The Town Council met with the members of the Fire Department during a virtual meeting on Tuesday, July 22.

Lacoste asked “whether or not we can try to maybe use funding immediately from the Infrastructure Fund to start doing something [for] the building…meanwhile have the Fire Department use the monies from your account to get that truck on schedule, and replace those funds from fiscal year 2021. That’s one possibility.”

Councilor Sven Risom added that it was his understanding “infrastructure [funds] can’t be used for repairing an automobile [or] refitting a truck.”

Town Manager Jim Kern also shared his concern about using the infrastructure fund. “There is a constraint that it be used for bricks and mortar. It is restricted to building buildings and similar.”

Fire Department Treasurer Mike Lofaro provided the council an update on the Fire Department’s finances, stating “we have $486,000 in cash, with some of the donations coming in this year.”

Town Finance Director Amy Land joined the meeting and stated how “extraordinary” this year has been, due to the unpredictability that COVID19 has had on the town’s finances.

“This is an extraordinary set of circumstances we are in. We do think we can manage through, but don’t let that be mistaken for the seriousness of the situation,” said Land. “I will say so far things are not looking so great. We are not seeing yet the level of revenue that would get us so far to honor any of those commitments early. It’s going to be a stretch to get through this year.”

Land went on to add “the use of the infrastructure funds becomes an action of the voters – we are proposing at the Financial Town Meeting next week. Any draw from that fund, would be authorized by the voters… a fire engine is a capital item, [truck] rehab is a capital item. Not the same as an infrastructure item.”

Hobe asked if donated monies were used to upgrade the truck could the town go to the voters next year “for the reimbursement of that?”

Land said “that can be something to consider.”

Hobe asked the council when “this conversation could start?”

Risom said the council would have to act on a motion on a possible bond in August if the engine was scheduled to be rehabbed in September.

“There’s a little bit of flexibility, but yes, August or September,” said Land.