Bond vote weighed for fire stations

Vancouver's aging facilities vulnerable to earthquakes




Vancouver voters will likely be asked to approve a bond measure to fix its seismically unsound and aging fire stations early next year.

Three of Vancouver’s 10 fire stations are more than 50 years old, and several have a 1-in-25 chance of collapsing in a 7.0 magnitude earthquake. Estimates show that station improvements could cost anywhere from $11.5 million to $27 million.

Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes said Tuesday that the city is beginning to craft the details of a bond measure in hopes of being prepared for a vote in February or April 2012. The Vancouver City Council will have to give final approval before the measure is placed on a ballot.

“It’s an indisputable need, and it is one that is bricks and mortar that we can deliver on,” Holmes said.

Also inching closer to reality is a proposed council-enacted $20 license fee to pay for new road construction, which has all but petered out as the city’s run out of money for such projects.

Both revenue options are far from certain, but city council members said they’d like to hear more during an all-day budget meeting last Friday. Details on both the car license fee — which would require the city to draft a list of what projects the fee would pay for — and what improvements a fire capital bond would make will both be available by the end of the year, Holmes said.

Though Vancouver would be wading into a most-likely still bad economy and following on the heels of C-Tran’s November sales tax vote by putting a bond on the ballot in spring 2012, Mayor Tim Leavitt said he’s not concerned voters will feel tapped out.

“It’s always a challenging circumstance to ask citizens to pay more out of their pockets for the benefit of the greater good,” Leavitt said. “But these are issues that we cannot continue to kick the can down the road with. I’m not worried about voter fatigue: If the case is made and the community is educated about the need, our citizens will make the right decision.”

Station study

City staff will study which stations need to be rebuilt and which could simply be retrofitted. Included in the study will be a survey on whether Vancouver — a city that’s grown vastly eastward — has all of its stations in the right spot.

For example, Fire Station 1, built in 1968 at 900 W. Evergreen St., has the Columbia River included its response area, Holmes said. It may be that the city could build a new station that would replace Stations 1 and 2 (Station 2 is at 400 E. 37th St.).

“That’s the work we need to do,” he said.

Vancouver had the capital reserves to retrofit or rebuild its fire stations, but instead chose to purchase a new City Hall building, at 415 W. Sixth St., last year for $18 million. A new City Hall won out because moving five separate city buildings into one will save $1 million a year, Holmes said.

“The City Hall saves money annually, (fire station improvements) don’t,” he said.

The city’s move toward a bond kills talk — at least for now — about a levy for public safety, parks or other revenue.

Holmes said that the time isn’t right to ask for money for operational costs. Vancouver is in bargaining talks with all of its unions, covering 75 percent of the workforce, leaving future employee costs uncertain, he said. Also, the city is continuing to study ways to streamline its parks department and other city services. Management staff and line workers are helping come up with other suggestions for improvement, he said.

“We’re not in a position to ask anybody for new operating revenue,” Holmes said. “We haven’t really fully explored some internal redesign elements.”

Licensing fee

The topic of a $20 car licensing fee has been floated for the past two years, and the city council asked Holmes Friday to draw up a list of what that money could buy.

Vancouver has a wish list for new roadwork well into the hundreds of millions of dollars — the license fee would generate just about $2 million annually, nowhere near what’s needed. But Holmes said that the money would allow the city to create a pay-as-you-go program that could be used for critical infrastructure, and also allow Vancouver to go after state and federal grants that require matching funds from the locals.

To enact the fee, the city council would have to create a Transportation Benefit District that would clearly name the projects the money would go toward.

The mayor called the city’s roads “crumbling” and a “huge need that must be addressed sooner rather than later.”

Leavitt said he supports enacting the $20 fee, which is the maximum the city council can assess before having to ask for voter approval. Some city councilors have said they are wary of any non-voted taxes or fees, but Leavitt said he felt their stance softening at Friday’s retreat.

“I believe at the end of the day we’ll weigh favorably toward … implementing a $20 license fee and/or asking our voters for additional support,” he said.

Councilor Jack Burkman, who has spoken against the council levying charges without a public vote, said Tuesday he still feels that way, but is still open to hearing more about it.

“I want to talk about it more,” Burkman said. “I do have significant concerns about council applying the tax.”

The city manager said he expects a full report on Transportation Benefit Districts to be ready for public review by the end of the year.

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or or or