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New fire station proposal has city leaders, citizens at crossroads

Updated: Feb. 28, 2021 at 9:29 AM CST
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OAK GROVE HEIGHTS, Ark. (KAIT) - Discussion over a new fire station has had Oak Grove Heights citizens and council members disagreeing the last few months.

In December 2020, council member Mike Robinson made a motion to move 13% of the city’s sales and use funds from the sewer revenue account to the fire department, to pay for a new fire station project.

The 13% originally funded the city’s police department before it was dissolved and the money was moved to the sewer account to help with costs of operation and maintenance.

The motion passed 5-1.

In January, two new council members took office.

When the ordinance was voted on in January, it was defeated by a 3-3 tie with Mayor Rudy Garner abstaining from the vote.

Fire Chief Justin Moore said the department has been working on getting a new station for a few years.

“The fire department, the last couple of years, has really been in dire need of expansion,” said Moore.

Currently, the station has six trucks with four bays and 17 active members.

“Which is not good when it comes to response times because we actually have to shuffle trucks in the back in order to run to calls,” said Moore.

The station has made a lot of progress in the last few years.

“We have lowered our ISO rating two times in the last six years and we would like to further lower the rating again, but in order to do that you have to have the trucks and the training and we don’t have the room to do any of that right now,” said Moore.

Currently, the station has an ISO four rating. According to Greg Gordon, the senior field representative who approves the rating for Oak Grove Heights, the department could achieve a rating of three or better despite only being a volunteer department.

In order to do this, the department needs a vigorous training schedule, good response numbers of firefighters to structure fires, well-equipped apparatus, strategically placed stations, and a good water supply.

The funding for the new fire station has the city at a crossroads.

Mayor Garner said the city cannot afford to move money from the sewer fund, because of the cost of future projects.

“We need the money to stay in the sewer system because we need to do more work than what actual money we’ve got,” said Garner. “We’ll have to do it in phases to even handle it like it is.”

Councilmember Kim Bailey doesn’t think keeping all of the funds in the sewer system is necessary.

A few years ago, the city passed a one-cent sales tax to fund the sewer system, with 25% of that revenue going toward the fire department.

As of January 2021, the city had around $119,000 in the wastewater account.

“With that one-cent sales tax plus the turnback money we get from the county and everything else that goes into that sewer fund, sewer rates, and everything, that sewer is well sustained in itself,” said Bailey.

Right now, there are two possible options for the new fire station.

One proposed by council members and another Mayor Garner said he was working on.

“The station that the mayor had proposed is a shell, it is a building with doors and heat so we can park our trucks in,” said Moore. “Which would be great and would help the city, but we need to look into the future for how big we are getting and how fast we are growing.”

The mayor’s plan would not include amenities like the kitchen, shower, and training room included in the plans from the council members.

“I couldn’t see no need of a kitchen and stuff like that for a volunteer fire station because we don’t have the money for that right now,” said Garner.

The city has two more sets of debt for older sewer systems, in addition to a recently added $1.7 million sewer system.

The mayor said work needs to be done on most of the city’s 11 lift stations as well.

“For the town to keep growing and for us to get the old sewer system up we need every penny of the money that’s there to stay there,” said Garner.

Mayor Garner said when he first got a quote for his plan, it would cost around or less than $250,000.

Kim Bailey said the plans the council presented would cost a similar amount.

“The fire station that was originally proposed, I believe the blueprint was taken by the fire chief to a construction company and I think somewhere around $230,000 would have built that fire station,” said Bailey.

The funds for the mayor’s fire station would come from different sources.

The mayor wants a portion to come from state funding from the Act 833 program, as well as moving a $500 monthly payment from a cell tower toward the fire station fund.

“These firemen need that ACT money to take care of buying new oxygen tanks, new hoses, new tools,” said Bailey. “If that money was being used to fund a new fire station, they couldn’t afford to operate. The citizens that I’ve talked to cannot understand for the life of them how that money is there and at this point is not being needed for anything else to help that sewer fund.”

The mayor had not yet officially presented a proposal for his plans to the council.

In 2019, the mayor had applied for a grant for the new station but did not receive the grant.

“After I couldn’t get the grant, I knew I’d have the time to work on this and get it ready,” said Garner.

Several citizens requested to speak at the February council meeting regarding the issue but Mayor Garner canceled the meeting, saying the number of people would have violated COVID restrictions.

Garner said Friday he does plan to make accommodations for the number of people interested in coming to the March meeting.

The next city council meeting will be at 5 p.m. on March 15.

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