By Karina Ioffee
After years of talking about the importance of building a new fire house to serve Bel Marin Keys and Ignacio, the Novato Fire Protection District decided this July that it didn't have enough funds to move forward with the plan.
The lowest bid for the $4 million project had come in $500,000 over budget and the board determined it would delay building a new station at 319 Enfrente Road.
But despite putting the project on hold, the district has continued to spend money on it, paying $576,000 to a consulting company over the past two years.
In May 2011, the agency signed a $910,000 professional services agreement with Kitchell, a Sacramento-area company to manage the construction of the new station. Since then, the consultant has overseen the demolition of the old station, the move to a temporary location on Roblar Drive and is now working to obtain permits to conduct soil cleanup on the property.
But with nearly two thirds of the money spent and no station in sight, some wonder whether the lucrative contract was most appropriate use of the money.
"Three hundred thousand dollars for a year of full-time work is a substantial amount for a project manager," said Gary Butler, who owns a State Farm insurance agency in Novato and is running for a seat on the Novato Fire Protection District board. "In the private sector you can get a very qualified person for half the amount."
Per the terms of the agreement, the fire district is paying $175 an hour for a project manager and $75 an hour for secretarial services, for tasks such as drawing up reports and correspondence.
Board members who approved the contract two years ago justified the expense, saying that not hiring "subject matter experts would create unacceptable financial and construction risks" to the agency." The district provides fire and medical emergency service for an estimated 70,000 residents in and around Novato and is funded through property taxes.
Board President Farhad Mansourian declined Novato Patch's request for comment, forwarding a reporter's inquiry to Chief Mark Heine. Board member Brad Beedle, who approved the contract, said he believed it was a good use of taxpayer money. He declined to elaborate about why a cheaper consultant could not be found.Chief Heine also defended the contract, saying Kitchell was selected because it offered the lowest bid among 23 companies. He also said the project manager has been instrumental in helping the district receive permits to prepare the site once funding becomes available.
And he said, Kitchell is obligated to finish all the work for the stated amount of the contract, although when pressed Heine admitted that at least $15,000 extra has been approved for soil remediation.
"Signing the professional services agreement versus a contract actually protects the taxpayers," Heine said.
The original Station 64 was built in 1974 and over the years the district spent a lot of money on improvements, such as rot control and replacing the exterior siding and the interior beams, Heine said. In fact, more money had been spent on repairs than the original construction. But after a 2010 study revealed that the building was not seismically safe, plans were put forward to move personnel out and rebuild.
Yet the decision coincided with the recession and subsequent drop in property taxes, so the project was put on hold. Today Station 64 firefighters are based in a temporary station on Roblar Drive while many Novatoans wonder when the new one will be built.
Times are indeed lean for the agency, which has been dipping into its savings account in order to balance the budget, this August transferring $171,500 from its reserves. It’s not the first time the agency has tapped its emergency fund to make ends meet, and likely not the last. That’s because pension and retiree healthcare costs have ballooned while property taxes have grown at a much slower pace.
To Butler, who has years of experience analyzing budgets (he used to work for Fireman’s Fund and General Electric), the Kitchell contract is one example of how the agency is not always frugal with taxpayer money.
"Certainly the difference between what it would take them to build the firehouse (the $500,000 the district says it was short on) and where they are today is half of what they plan to pay consultant," he said. "They went for a first class project manager, but they couldn't accomplish what they wanted to. So now they have an empty lot and a temporary fire station and no plan to build firehouse in the 2013-2014 budget.”
Kevin Johnston, a former Novato firefighter and also a contender for the district board in the Nov. 5 election, said he wasn’t familiar with the details of the contract, but questioned the timing.
“The previous station was demolished, but we had no bids on the new station,” he said. “It would have been nice to have that nailed down before going through the demolition.”
Chief Heine said the agency will revisit the construction of Station 64 in spring of 2014. Meanwhile, he said, the move has not impacted the agency’s response times, which average around 5 minutes and 15 seconds per call.
“Building a station now would not be in the best long-term financial interests of the district,” Heine told Patch. “I don't spend unbudgeted money. However, we really do want to get it done and hopefully will be able to as the economy improves."
What do you think? Are you surprised at the cost of the project management contract or think that it’s fine so long as the new fire station gets built? Share your views in the comments below.