Divided Council Approves $9.8M Contract For New Fire Station

Divided Council Approves $9.8M Contract For New Fire Station
Photo by Bethany Hooper

OCEAN CITY – A divided council voted this week to approve a $9.8 million construction contract for a new fire station at 65th Street.

In a work session Tuesday, the council voted 4-3, with Councilmen Matt James, Peter Buas and John Gehrig opposed, to approve a contract with Delmarva Veteran Builders totaling $9,821,637 for the construction of Station 3.

While officials agreed something needed to be done to improve living and working conditions, those in opposition questioned the need for a new facility and the impacts it would have on the town’s budget.

“I just think we have a spending issue,” James said.

Last November, the Mayor and Council approved moving forward with the construction of a new fire station at a total cost of $10.5 million, with $10 million dedicated to construction and contingencies and nearly $500,000 dedicated to design. The new, 23,500-square-foot facility will be relocated from its current location at 74th Street to the parking lot of the town’s public safety building on 65th Street.

In a presentation this week, Ocean City Fire Department Chief Richie Bowers said the current facility at 74th Street has fallen into disrepair and no longer meets the needs of the department. He said the building lacked space, parking and adequate bedrooms and bathrooms, among other things.

“There could be – because we do not have adequate facilities for both our male and female employees – an unfortunate HR issue where someone walks in on somebody,” he said. “We have one shower. That’s all we have in that station for upwards of six, or at times eight, people.”

He also highlighted structural issues and poor living and working conditions.

“Respectfully, our men and women, both career and volunteer, as well as our residents, really do deserve better than this,” he said. “I believe, without a doubt, the right thing to do is continue with the project at 65th Street. It just increases our capabilities.”

Bowers said the new station would not only give the department more space but would improve response times, particularly between the areas of 40th and 52nd streets.

“I can tell you this station is needed, not wanted,” he said.

For his part, James questioned the need for a new facility at 65th Street. He said he had heard no concerns or formal complaints from the town’s human resources department or the Career Firefighters and Paramedics Union (IAFF Local 4269).

“You’ve got a very active union, and I am of the opinion that if people that work in these stations were uncomfortable or felt that they were not being taken care of, we would know about it,” he said.

He also shared concerns about relocating the station to the lot in front of the public safety building and public works complex.

“To suggest moving the station to 65th Street would be less congested is a little misleading,” he said. “It’s probably one of the busiest intersections of Ocean City, with the exception of Route 90 and Route 50. You have over 300 employees that come and go from the public safety building or public works on a daily basis. Most trash trucks, every bus and most police cars and tow trucks come through that intersection, and on heavy checkout days, Route 90 can be backed up three or four blocks on Coastal Highway, which would block access from the fire house at 65th Street.”

James said he would rather see the town continue to partner with the Ocean City Volunteer Fire Company, which owns the property on which the existing station sits, and make improvements to the 74th Street site.

“I think we should improve on the conditions at Station 3,” he said. “I think our people do deserve clean and safe working conditions. I think all of that is not easily done, but possible to do in the current location.”

Bowers, however, said a renovation of the existing station would disrupt operations.

“I’m concerned about the continuity of operations, I’m concerned about the safety and health of our men and women who work there every day and night and holiday and weekend, and the inadequate facilities,” he said.

City Manager Terry McGean said a renovation of the existing station could cost between $6 million and $7 million, depending on if the town purchased the property from the volunteer fire company. That estimate, he said, included additional bathrooms and living space, a decontamination area and a new kitchen, among other things.

“In my opinion, if you go that route, you are throwing good money after bad,” he said. “You are spending between $6 million and $7 million for a fire station you are not going to be able to expand. It still doesn’t have adequate storage, it still doesn’t have decontamination areas and it’s half the size of what we can build at 65th Street.”

Councilman Will Savage said he was in favor of tabling the issue until a broader discussion could be had on a potential renovation.

“I don’t think we have enough information on the existing Station 3,” he said. “We don’t know that we have buy-in from our volunteers, and we have the issue of ownership.”

Officials also questioned the need for additional staffing, which Bowers had identified as a priority for the fire department. Gehrig said he wasn’t opposed to a new fire station, but wanted additional information on how the town was going to pay for the 12 additional full-time firefighters it needed.

“Ultimately, I’m not inclined to renovate,” he said. “At the same time, I don’t feel good voting for this today when I don’t know what we’re doing with staff. And staff is the number one priority.”

Councilwoman Carol Proctor said she also opposed the renovation concept.

“It doesn’t make sense, based on these numbers, to renovate the building and put that much money into the building …,” she said. “We’ve waited a very long time. Public safety has to be at the top of the list.”

Councilmen Frank Knight and Tony DeLuca said they also supported the relocation of Station 3.

“It makes no sense to spend $7 to $8 million to renovate the existing station …,” Knight said. “This is a definite need, and I’m going to vote in favor of it.”

After further discussion, the council voted 4-3 to approve the construction contract for a new fire station at 65th Street.

IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington also came before the council Tuesday to advocate for the creation of a committee that focuses on fire department and public safety matters. Buas said it could be discussed at a future work session.

“We have these two critical issues for the fire department,” Whittington said, referencing the Station 3 project and ongoing staffing challenges. “We have a committee for parking, we have a committee for bikes, we have a committee for everything but your fire department and public safety.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.