Norwich city manager: Replacing all aging firetrucks would cost $21 million

Norwich — It would cost an estimated $21.1 million over a 20-year period to replace aged trucks, including a new $3.4 million bond, but if five vehicles were culled over time, the cost would be "considerably lower," a new report analyzing the city’s firetruck fleet and replacement costs said.

City Manager John Salomone was directed by the City Council in February to work with the six city fire chiefs — one paid chief and five volunteer department chiefs — to create a detailed inventory of the city’s firefighting apparatuses, including the age, mileage and usage hours of each vehicle and proposed replacement timetable and costs.

Salomone proposed the city phase out four or five firetrucks over the next 20 years, calling for the volunteer departments to increase automatic responses to fellow departments’ calls and “some alteration of emergency responses for each separate department,” Salomone wrote, to cover for the reduction in total vehicles.

“Without the reduction in some vehicles,” he wrote, “I don’t believe that the city can sustain the funding at the maximum level. ... This decision is a compromise which is in the best interests of the city.”

City voters approved a $2.8 million bond in a November 2017 referendum to replace five vehicles in four volunteer fire departments, the first vehicles acquired by the volunteer departments in 10 years. The paid fire department last purchased a new vehicle in 2013.

The report submitted by Salomone on Tuesday — the designated council deadline for receiving the report — already is drawing criticism from some volunteer chiefs, who questioned the proposed reductions and said the numerous meetings with Salomone that led to the report focused on the inventory.

Two volunteer chiefs reached Wednesday said there was minimal discussion on reducing the number of fire apparatuses, and they had no input on the final report’s recommendations for reductions and for adjusting the interdepartmental responses. Yantic Fire Chief Frank Blanchard said the report was rushed, and the chiefs were not asked to review drafts before it was submitted.

“It’s definitely not what we were working toward,” Taftville volunteer Chief Tim Jencks said. “This is the first time I see it. We met at great lengths and provided a lot of data on the vehicles we have and previous replacement plans. All that information was put in. We had a very brief discussion about possible apparatus reduction, and that’s it.”

Salomone said Wednesday he submitted the report to meet the council deadline and considers it “a starting point” for future decisions on fire apparatuses. The study will be forwarded to the council’s Public Safety Committee for review and recommendations. Any future funding and apparatus replacement decisions would be up to the City Council.

“This report is always going to be subject to alterations,” Salomone said. “The council will have to decide what they’re going to do. It goes to Public Safety, and the fire departments will have a lot of input.”

Salomone plans to review the report at next Wednesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting.

“The study does a very extensive job on the age of the vehicles,” he said. “For the first time, we have a good inventory, and when it should be replaced in the future. That was the real goal of this. I made a professional judgment as manager that we couldn’t afford to purchase every truck over the next 20 years.”

The report includes detailed charts listing each piece of apparatus, its age, years of service, mileage and hours of use, including stationary time with the engine running, and pumps or equipment working at emergency scenes. The charts give each vehicle a replacement priority ranking and projected costs for replacement.

According to the figures, the city’s paid and volunteer departments have a combined total of 25 vehicles, ranging in age from six to 40 years. Six vehicles have more than 30 years of service, with one at 40 years. Seven vehicles were given replacement priorities of 1 or 1a, not including the five vehicles slated to be replaced under the 2017 bond.

The cost to replace all vehicles by 2039 was estimated at $21.1 million, costing city taxpayers $1 million to $1.1 million a year from 2030 to 2039, when the vehicles would be slated for replacement. The annual costs include a combination of capital costs budgeted in the annual budget, principal and interest on a proposed new bond of $3.4 million.

If the fleet were reduced by four vehicles, the total estimated cost would be $17.9 million, with annual taxpayer costs ranging from $842,000 to $968,000 over the same 10-year period, including capital costs and payments on a $2 million bond. If five vehicles were removed, the total replacement cost was placed at $17.48 million, and annual payments would range from $803,000 to $940,000 with a $1.5 million bond needed.

Blanchard said the numbers show that the city still has to address its aging firefighting fleet after the 2017 bond.

“The 2017 bond got us to a better position, but not where we should be,” Blanchard said. “The apparatus in this city is used and is used under extreme conditions.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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