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Monday, March 25 , 2019, 1:11 am | Fair 50º

 
 
 
 
Advice

Ron Fink: Too Many Unknowns for New Lompoc Fire Station

The issue before the Lompoc City Council on April 7 was whether to authorize an expenditure of funds to develop plans and conduct an environmental review for a new and much larger city fire station in the northwest portion of town.

Several years ago, the council commissioned a study, called a Fire Department Master Plan, of the city’s fire services. This study identified several improvements that needed to be made in order to improve service levels. Over the last three decades as the city grew and the boundaries were shifted north and west, building a new fire station in a more centralized location became imperative.

All of the current council members support building a new station so it can allow firefighters and their equipment to reach all buildings in their response area within the five-minute national standard — thus citizens will be better protected. Not only will lives be saved, but by maintaining the national standard fire insurance ratings will be improved and property owners may realize lower rates.

Many council members of the past few decades viewed the fire department as an expensive item in the General Fund budget and relegated any proposed improvements to the bottom of the budget pile. They simply didn’t plan ahead for a growing community. But that was then, and today the council is much more aware of community needs and is taking steps to fix the problem.

The council has previously agreed on the general location of the new station — the issue is whether they should purchase property or use public property on the city airport. This is where it gets a little complicated.

Fire Chief Kurt Latipow gave an excellent presentation on how fire stations are designed and explained why he needed a plot of land that would be a little over two acres in size. He also provided a color-coded map demonstrating why a site in this area was the most conducive to achieving the national standard response time throughout the city.

The fire chief and his staff studied eight locations, five of which were currently occupied by thriving commercial enterprises. Of the three locations that were on vacant lands, two were privately owned and another was within airport property. These sites are only separated by a fence.

The staff is recommending that the city enter into a lease agreement with the airport district as the new location for this station, but this recommendation raises some questions. Keep in mind that the City Council also oversees the airport district, so they’ll be dealing with themselves during this negotiation. If approved, this deal would require a never ending transference of General Funds to the airport.

The need to use airport property became clearer after the fire chief told the council that the property outside the fence “was not for sale.”

The cost of this deal is a little fuzzy. No one seemed to know what the fair market value of the airport property would be. The city administrator seemed to think that it might be around $200,000 a year. If this deal goes through, what other city services would suffer as the result of transferring this money to the airport in perpetuity is another unanswered question.

Factors to be considered are the value of a fire station to airport operations and the value of the property for future airport enterprises considering that an industrial development will soon be built and airport access is a desirable consideration for potential occupants of the industrial complex.

This phase of the project is critical. Preparing the design is site specific and if the council were to decide later that they prefer another site, well then the money being spent now would probably be wasted and they may have to start over. Not only would it waste valuable tax dollars but it would also set the schedule behind if a new site was identified.

Basically by approving the design funds they are committing to the airport site without even knowing what it will cost to rent the land or what impact the loss of funds will have on other General Fund services. Only Councilmen Dirk Starbuck and Victor Vega seemed to understand this.

There were a lot of unanswered questions when the discussion was complete, but nevertheless three council members, including Mayor Bob Lingl, agreed to provide the requested funds.

So, it looks like the council majority didn’t need any objective cost information to make their decision. They may have allowed themselves and future council members to be locked into a site that could wind up costing a lot more than any of them expected.

No one argues with the fact that the city needs a second fire station in a new location or that the fire department needs more space. But proceeding without knowing how much the site will cost leaves this taxpayer scratching my head.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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