Council Approves Fire Station Design After Price Tag Reduced

OCEAN CITY — Satisfied revisions in the design for a new midtown fire station to 65th Street brought the cost estimate to an acceptable level, the majority of the council this week voted to move forward with the project.

Last spring, the Mayor and Council voted to eventually replace the aging and dilapidated Station 3 firehouse at 74th Street with a new facility in the parking lot of the Public Safety Building at 65th Street. The midtown Station 3 firehouse was built in 1969 and expanded in 1987. In the decades since, it has fallen into disrepair and no longer meets the needs of the department.

In April, the Mayor and Council voted to approve the plan to build a new fire station at 65th Street and funding was approved for the preliminary design work. Last month, during a discussion of an upcoming bond sale, City Engineer Terry McGean and Ocean City Fire Chief Richie Bowers presented the preliminary designs for the new station, and the Mayor and Council were disappointed by how much the estimate had increased.

When the new station was first discussed in April, the overall cost estimate was around $5.5 million. There was, and still is, a possibility the cost of the new station could be offset by the sale of the old firehouse property, which is owned by the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company. The estimated value of the old fire station land is around $1.5 million.

When the preliminary building design was presented to the Mayor and Council in August, the cost estimate had soared to around $12 million, which would be lowered by the $1.5 million from the sale of the old firehouse to around $11 million. Unsatisfied with the hike in the estimate, the Mayor and Council requested McGean, Bowers and the design team come up with something more fiscally palatable.

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Nonetheless, the estimated cost of the new Station 3 was still included in the approved $49 million bond sale at roughly $12 million. The idea was once the bond sale goes through and the cost estimate for the new station is reduced, any leftover funding could be diverted to other projects listed in the bond, including the redevelopment of Baltimore Avenue, for example.

On Tuesday, McGean and Bowers returned with a revised preliminary design for the new station, which reduced the exorbitant price tag while still meeting the department’s needs.

“Last month, we told you the building size and the price tag had gone up significantly,” said McGean. “We believe the design we’re presenting here today meets all of the department’s goals. It represents concessions made by all parties.”

With the revised design, the new estimate for the Station 3 firehouse at 65th Street dropped to just over $9 million, which, after the sale of the old station, could be reduced further to around $7.6 million. McGean said simply reducing the size of the proposed station did not represent a one-to-one reduction because of the economy of scale and certain fixed costs regardless of the size of the new station.

“It’s important to remember where we were with this project a year ago,” he said. “Although it is still more than what was estimated in April, it is still less than what we would have paid.”

Council Secretary Tony DeLuca thanked McGean, Bowers and the entire staff for whittling down the exorbitant price tag presented for the preliminary design last month. He then made a motion to move forward with the amended design.

However, before a vote was taken, Councilman Peter Buas had a few questions. Buas questioned if there was a firm agreement in place with the volunteer company to contribute the revenue realized from the sale of the old Station 3.

“I’m just wondering if this is premature,” he said. “Do we know if we have nailed down a deal with the volunteers about the sale of the old firehouse?”

McGean explained there was not a firm contract and there were more steps in that process to accomplish, but that the volunteers have agreed in principle to transfer the sale proceeds to the new Station 3 firehouse.

“We have a commitment from the volunteers about the contribution from the sale of the old firehouse,” he said. “That can be going on with a parallel track.”

Buas also questioned the impact of the more expensive Station 3 on other projects in the capital improvement plan (CIP) approved last spring.

“We’re about 25% over on this project,” he said. “Do you have any idea how that will impact the CIP? My concern is when we did the CIP in spring, the new firehouse was listed fairly low on the priority list.”

McGean explained the overage in the estimate on the new firehouse would not move the fiscal needle significantly.

Buas asked DeLuca if he would consider amending his motion to make approval of the new firehouse design contingent on a formalized agreement with the volunteers. McGean suggested a way to move forward with the design plans while continuing to firm up the agreement with the volunteer company.

“We’re still in the relatively early stage of the design,” he said. “We will bring the design development back to you. Maybe the motion could be to allow us to continue to move forward while excluding the contribution documents.”

Bowers said he was confident there would be no problem with the volunteers’ contribution to the new station from the sale of the old firehouse.

“This town has worked for decades with the volunteers and now the union,” he said. “I believe their word is good. We have worked well with them in the past.”

A vote was called on DeLuca’s original motion, which passed 5-1 with Council President Matt James opposed and Councilman John Gehrig absent.

When asked about his vote in opposition later on Wednesday, James said he supported the project, just not the price tag at this point.

“I voted against it,” he said. “I support the project, but I don’t support overspending. Everywhere you look there are supply chain issues. I had to get paint for a project at the hotel and local stores didn’t have what we needed. I had to drive to Rehoboth for the paint we needed.”

James said he just didn’t think the price was right for the new firehouse, even with the reductions from the revisions.

“I just don’t think we’re getting the best deal,” he said. “We built Station 4 less than 10 years again at $2.7 million, and that was under the $3.5 million that was budgeted. I get things have changed a lot, but we’re double where we were in April and quadruple what we paid for Station 4. I would like to see it rebid. Long-term, the project needs to be done. This is just not the best time.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.