OCEAN CITY — The future of Ocean City’s midtown firehouse at 74th Street remains much in doubt this week after a rather terse debate about the direction in which to head for the facility.
In March, the Mayor and Council had before them four proposed bids for preliminary design, engineering and cost analysis for replacing the existing Station 3 firehouse at 74th Street with a new facility on the front lot of the Public Safety Building at 65th Street. The Request For Proposal (RFP) was budgeted for $30,000 and would provide the council with vital information needed before moving forward with the proposed relocation of Station 3 to the 65th Street area.
Replacing the Station 3 firehouse, first built in 1969 and expanded in 1987, has been part of a larger strategic plan for the resort’s fire stations developed in 2002 and most recently updated a year and a half ago. However, with many other significant capital projects in the planning and development pipeline, the majority of the council voted 4-3 in March to temporarily shelve the Station 3 replacement plan.
That narrow vote came after the council got assurances the existing Station 3 firehouse could last at least another five years. Instead of proceeding with the bidding process for the design of the new Station 3 firehouse at 65th Street, the divided council instructed City Engineer Terry McGean to go back and do further analysis on the condition of the existing facility and what it would take to eke out another five years or so while other major capital projects were taken off the town’s ledgers.
McGean returned on Tuesday with a recommendation and some alternatives for how best to proceed. He said further study revealed the firehouse was generally in good condition structurally, but had several deficiencies and functional problems that would need to be addressed if the facility was going to continue to be used in both the short and long terms.
As a result, McGean presented three different alternatives with varying price tags although two were intrinsically linked together. The staff’s recommendation was to move forward with the firehouse replacement plan and spend the budgeted $30,000 on preliminary design and engineering work along with an additional $25,000 to complete a handful of pressing projects needed to keep the existing firehouse operational and livable for the men and women who use it.
McGean explained the $25,000 short-term fix would bridge the gap until a new Station 3 firehouse could be designed, engineered and ultimately developed at the 65th Street location. The second alternative presented by McGean included more extensive renovations and rehabilitations at the existing firehouse at the 74th Street location to the tune of around $275,000 if the Mayor and Council’s desire was to put the firehouse replacement project on the back burner and attempt to get another five to 10 years out of the existing facility.
Boiled down to its simplest terms, Station 3 could be renovated and restored to last another two to three years until a replacement firehouse called for in the strategic plan could be built at 65th Street. That combined $55,000 price tag would bring the station up to code and make it livable and ADA compliant for the short term. If the plan was for keeping the firehouse for five to 10 years, the alternative was spending the $275,000 on more extensive renovations and upgrades.
Essentially, the staff’s favored option was spending the $25,000 on short-term repairs and investing the $30,000 on the preliminary design work for the new facility. However, Councilman Wayne Hartman pointed out the majority of the council had expressed a desire to back-burner the fire station replacement plan and instructed McGean and staff to return with short-term plans to eke more life out of the existing facility.
“I was quite surprised to see the recommendation to replace Station 3 in here,” he said. “The last time we discussed this, the majority of the council voted to keep the firehouse open. The chief said he was confident the building would last another five years and beyond.”
Hartman pressed McGean on why the recommendation was to make short-term repairs and move forward with the replacement option. McGean countered he merely put all of the alternatives on the table. Protocol calls for one option to be the recommendation and others to be listed as alternative and it is ultimately the council’s decision on what direction in which to proceed.
“To be frank, it takes two to three years once you start the process,” he said. “If you tell me to get two or three more years out of this facility, I’m going to tell you to do the $25,000 in repairs and spend the $30,000 on the design work for the new firehouse. If you tell me you want another five to 10 years out of it, I’m going to recommend the $275,000 package. I have to give you a recommendation and then offer you alternatives. Those are the alternatives as I see them.”
Hartman said it would not make sense to proceed with design work for a firehouse that might not be built for another five years. He pointed out things could change with the wants and needs of the firehouse including the success of the live-in program for firefighters, the new 14-hour and 10-hour shift schedule that will replace the old 24-hour shifts and could reduce the needs for living quarters.
“We don’t know what we’re designing right now,” he said. “There has been talk about expanding the live-in program. That needs to be successful all year-round. If we change the schedule for firemen, we might not need the bunk space if the 14-10 shifts are successful.”
McGean defended the proposals, saying the options included a short-term fix, a longer-term fix and ultimately a replacement alternative with varying projected price tags. Council President Lloyd Martin said McGean had given the council exactly what they requested.
“I think when we asked you to give us an honest recommendation, you gave us an honest recommendation,” he said. “I want a true and honest recommendation and I want alternatives and you have given us that. I want the honest opinion. I don’t want you or any department head to come in here and tell me what they think I want to hear.”
City Manager Doug Miller also defended the proposed recommendations and alternatives and came to the defense of the process.
“Our staff will always give you a complete and honest recommendation,” he said. “We don’t expect you to always agree with it. For us not to give a complete and honest recommendation would be remiss on our part.”
Fire Chief Chris Larmore said the short-term repairs were needed to make the Station 3 firehouse livable and operational because no improvements had been made under the assumption it was scheduled for replacement.
“For the last five years, we have not submitted any of these budget items including some of the stopgap measures because as part of our strategic plan updated just a year and a half ago, called for replacing the building,” he said. “I think the city engineer has performed exactly what was asked of him. What would it take to get the building livable for the short term, what would it take for the long term and what are the pros and cons of replacing the building?”
Councilman Tony DeLuca attempted to be the voice of reason in what had become a rather tense back-and-forth. DeLuca pointed out the Mayor and Council would be conducting strategic planning for capital improvement projects this fall and suggested the Station 3 issue be discussed at that time to determine where it was on the priority list for capital projects in the resort. Once it was determined where the firehouse replacement fell on the pecking order, a decision could be made on what short-term or long-term options should be undertaken. He made a motion to that effect and it was passed unanimously by the full council.