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Council rejects fire chief's idea for new station

A proposal to spend $1.2 million for land for a new fire station has been rejected by the Jacksonville City Council. The city has wrestled with locating and financing a new station for more than two decades.

“Whatever we do on this problem, it isn’t going away,” Mayor Paul Becker said before the council voted in early October to reject a plan developed by Fire Chief Devin Hull.

Hull suggested the city purchase 1.5 acres of land at 815 N. Fifth St. that was formerly occupied by HVAC firm Spring Air. He also proposed construction of a station and purchase of a fire engine for an additional $1.8 million.

“There are decisions that are easily made and reversed and there are decisions that are one-way. This is a one-way decision,” said Councilor Criss Garcia. “In general, the alternatives being unclear, we can’t really proceed in good conscience.”

Hull envisioned selling a portion of the site for as much as $650,000 to help finance the project. A lot sale of the current fire station at 1809 N. Third St. was estimated to bring in $450,000. Hull had estimated a new building would cost $1.5 million.

The current station, built in the 1930s, lacks space and would be vulnerable in the event of an earthquake. Hull’s proposal showed a 9,600-square-foot-building.

During public comment on the proposal at the Oct. 3 meeting, Katie Haugse asked where direction came from for Hull’s proposal. She noted that the last time the city’s Public Safety Committee met was July 2016.

“I believe an explanation of this proposal needs to be presented more thoroughly to the citizens of Jacksonville,” said Haugse. She also listed several other properties that might serve as fire station locations.

Several suggestions were proposed for station financing. Among them was a $12 addition to the monthly $35 public safety surcharge now paid on utility billings to support fire services. Haugse, Becker and Garcia all said they viewed such a measure as regressive.

Other financing options included a capital project levy of $1.91 million for five years that would assess taxpayers $1 per $1,000 of valuation. A bond measure was also suggested, but there were no financial details for that proposal.

The city’s urban renewal agency was also mentioned as a source of funds, but urban renewal money cannot be used for land purchases, Becker said.

Hull also reported on a fire station in Idaho where construction was financed 100 percent by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency because the building met the highest LEED standards.

The city will revive another option it has explored before. Councilors held a study session on the proposal during September. At that time they requested city staff to speak again with Jackson County fire districts 2 and 3 about the possibility of joining a fire district, which would eliminate the stand-alone city department.

City Administrator Jeff Alvis said Thursday meetings with the districts probably will be set up next month.

Both districts did not go forward with annexation in the past because of an insufficient tax base within the city to support annexation. More buildings in Jacksonville and increases in values may have changed the situation, councilors stated during the session.

“When I moved here 15 years ago, the fire station had been talked about for 10 years,” said Tony Hess during citizen input. “You’ve got to get outside the box and think about everything. The current proposal is a start. It needs a review."

— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.