BRATTLEBORO—One of the biggest decisions the Selectboard must make during Fiscal Year 2019 budget deliberations is whether the town should purchase a new aerial ladder truck for the Brattleboro Fire Department.
Fire Chief Michael Bucossi and Assistant Fire Chief Leonard Howard III appeared at the Dec. 5 regular Selectboard meeting to offer details on what the new truck will cost and why they think it’s necessary.
But not all Board members were convinced the budget can support the purchase this year.
A new aerial firetruck is “the largest single expense for any one item in this year’s capital program,” noted Town Manager Peter B. Elwell.
Fire Department officials warned the Selectboard in the past about the need to replace the ladder truck, which is 26 years old and was taken out of service in August for safety reasons.
During last year’s budget talks, the Board set aside some money for a new truck — then estimated to cost $1 million — with the expectation the town would receive a large grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. When the town didn’t receive the grant, the project was shelved.
Since then, officials with the fire department did some research and found a way to reduce the new truck’s cost to $950,000. Elwell proposed the Board authorize the purchase of a new aerial ladder truck and use $450,000 from the unassigned general fund balance, plus $500,000 borrowed on a 10-year note, to pay for the apparatus. This purchase will add $60,000 to the budget for the next 10 years, Elwell said.
Buy a used truck?
Earlier this year, the Selectboard approved the purchase of a used, 24-year-old aerial ladder truck as a temporary replacement for the 1991 truck, which was taken out of service.
However, according to figures Bucossi and Howard shared, 24 years is beyond the recommended life-span for a truck that gets such frequent use. In Brattleboro, Bucossi said, the ladder truck goes out on a call every single day.
Selectboard member John Allen spoke repeatedly about his opposition to the purchase. “It’s not personal,” he said, “it’s just money.” Allen said his concern was with the burden on low-income taxpayers in town.
“We can only afford so much,” Allen said. “I hate it when we say, ‘Well, it’s an old truck.’ Well, I’ve got an old car. It still runs great. I don’t think we can go by the age of a vehicle.”
Bucossi and Howard said that a fire truck isn’t like a family car.
A firetruck’s life is determined “not by mileage, but by age and use,” Bucossi said. “When you use a firetruck, it gets used hard,” he noted.
Relying on a used, aged truck is “risky,” Bucossi said, because “we don’t know what type of service we’ll get out of this vehicle because we just got it. We’re rolling the dice with this truck.” Elwell noted it takes one year for the manufacturer to deliver a new aerial truck from the time the town orders it, because the vehicles are custom-made.
Howard said he researched used aerial trucks and learned that even trucks 10-15 years old aren’t a good investment. They are “the departments’ lemons and they need to get rid of it,” Howard said. “We’re asking for trouble to buy it.”
“It’s important to not run the vehicle down to the end of its life,” Howard said, because of breakdowns and the safety of firefighters.
Fire vehicles are complicated to maintain, Bucossi told the Selectboard. Although firefighters clean and repair them on a regular basis — and take extra steps to minimize rust — time and intensity of use wear down the apparatus.
“The ladder truck issues were not because of maintenance. It was because of age. There was nothing we could do,” he said. “The steel aerial corroded after time.” Bucossi noted the torque box, which is where all the components, including the ladder, attaches to the truck’s frame, may not have passed inspection.
“We can’t run it until it dies because it leaves us with this gap in fire protection and community safety,” Bucossi said.
‘It makes me very nervous’
“As a fire chief, it makes me very nervous not to have an aerial truck in this town, with the construction we have,” Bucossi said. He pointed out the truck’s use during the town’s most recent major fires.
“The ladder truck worked at The Wilder Building for 14 straight hours. It worked at The Brooks House for 20 straight hours [...] That ladder truck was the saving grace for four of my people who came off the fifth floor [...] when there was a back-out. I don’t want to have to rely on [whether] it’s going to work right when we know people’s lives are at stake,” Bucossi said.
“It’s like car insurance. When we need it, we need it,” he said.
Board member Tim Wessel asked Bucossi if the town was likely to get a FEMA grant next year. Bucossi said those grants are competitive, nationwide, and come out only once a year — they are also dependent on how much money President Trump allocates for the organization, and that is unknown, so the town shouldn’t depend on the grant.
Bucossi and Howard both thanked the Putney Fire Department for their one-month loan of a ladder truck in the time between removing the 1991 ladder truck from service, and the arrival of the used ladder truck.
“It was a very, very generous gesture on their part,” Bucossi noted.
“We wouldn’t be in front of you [...] if we didn’t feel that this purchase was necessary,” Bucossi said. “We realize the expense and the burden on taxpayers, but we feel that it’s a very necessary purchase [...] to do this year.”
Howard explained that putting off the expense until next year “won’t save taxpayers money. You’ve cost them more money” because depreciation of the used truck will continue, thus reducing its resale or trade value, and repairing the used truck is expensive.
“It’s not like a car that you can just pop the hood open” and fix it, Howard said.
Selectboard Chair Kate O’Connor told Board members they didn’t have to decide that day whether to approve the purchase. The budget process lasts through mid-January, and Elwell encouraged Board members to use that time to research the issue.
Elwell expressed his concern that if the Board votes “no” on replacing the truck this year, “that doesn’t relieve us of the necessity of doing this in the very near future.”