Councilors question need, expense of rescue boat for fire department

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Some Common Council members questioned the priority of Rome Fire Department purchasing an $8,500 rescue boat when Chief Thomas M. Iacovissi appeared before the council for the department’s annual budget hearing as part of the city’s proposed $45.7 million spending plan for 2022.

While appropriations for the fire department is divided among several different lines of the budget, overall, proposed spending on fire safety operations is approximately 13.98% of the city’s proposed spending plan. It includes several pieces of equipment including handline hose, a respirator fit tester, extrication jaw hydraulic hose and ice/water rescue boat, as well as staff salaries.

A public hearing on the proposed budget will be held at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 13, prior to the Common Council meeting held in Council Chambers at City Hall at 7 p.m. Department heads have been meeting before the Common Council for work sessions where each section of the proposed budget is being reviewed. Rome Police Department and city Codes Department are scheduled for hearings on Oct. 13.

Iacovissi mentioned how the department will be getting rid of two trucks and replacing them with new aerial and pumper trucks. When Mayor Jacqueline M. Izzo released her proposed budget for 2022 to councilors last month, she indicated that the purchase of the trucks, which had already been bonded for, would be paid for through the $12,067,211 in federal stimulus grant monies the city is receiving as part of the American Rescue Plan, which was signed into law March 11, for Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery. Izzo said the use of stimulus money toward the trucks’ purchase would be “about $2 million off the backs of the local taxpayers.”

Chief Iacovissi indicated that there was a good possibility that the department wouldn’t even receive the trucks in 2022. The pumper and aerial trucks to be replaced on the department’s fleet are 15-plus years old.

“The new pumper is 13-14 months out, and the new tower is 14 months out,” he said. “It’s more likely we’ll receive the trucks in 2023.”

Fifth Ward Councilor Frank R. Anderson asked when the expense “would hit” for the trucks, and Iacovissi replied that it would be when they were delivered to the fire department.

Anderson then asked, “Then why are we worrying about this in 2022?”

City Treasurer David Nolan replied, “It’s not reflected in the 2022 budget — it’s coming out of the $12 million in stimulus money.”

Iacovissi was then questioned about the 15 lengths of 1-3/4 hand line hose included in the department’s budget, as well as 15 lengths of 5-inch Large Diameter Hose, for a total $15,900, and the chief explained that the hoses age out over time.

The Portacount Respirator Fit Tester for $13,150 is needed for the department to test its respirators annually, Iacovissi said. He said Oneida County used to have a fit tester on loan to any department that needed it, but that the tester went bad and the county hasn’t replaced it.

Discussions then shifted to the department’s proposed purchase of a rescue boat for $8,500. When Izzo unveiled her proposed 2022 spending plan, she said, “We needed that during the flooding” from Tropical Storm Fred in August, “and we were lucky we were able to use an old truck,” adding that the vehicle could have stalled when water reached past the height of the tires.

The fire department “requested the rescue boat last year in a zero-increase budget, and it was not funded,” Izzo said. “So, we will be fulfilling that request next year. It was a good lesson to be learned during the storm crisis.”

Third Ward Councilor Kimberly Rogers pointed out that the purchase of the rescue boat “has been in and out of the budget for the last three years.” Councilors said a boat would have been useful during the recent flooding in the River Street area. Iacovissi was then asked if a boat could’ve been borrowed during such a situation.

“We might’ve been able to call Oriskany,” which has a boat and water rescue team, “but they already had something else going on” during that emergency, the chief said. “If we had someone out on the canal” or Mohawk River, “to get there, it’s urgent. Oriskany would take at least a half-hour to get there.”

“The flooding will probably happen again,” he added.

Common Council President Stephanie Viscelli then asked if Oriskany was the closest department with a boat and if the fire department could try to contract with Hamilton College, which now has its boathouse at Bellamy Harbor Park.

“I think it would be more efficient and effective” if the fire department had its own rescue boat, said Fourth Ward Councilor Ramona L. Smith.

It was also argued that the boat was needed now that Hamilton College is using the canal “all the time” for its rowing team, and that there had been kids’ kayaking programs on the canal in years past.

Iacovissi further explained that the department already had ice rescue equipment and that the boat would be used for water rescues only, and would include a small outboard motor.

Second Ward Councilor John B. Mortise then scrutinized how often the rescue boat would be used by the department and the lack of a place to store it. The fire department has all-terrain vehicles “used for multiple things,” including rescues/first aid responses to the Mohawk River Trail and snowmobile trails, as well as grass fires, and a “needed” HazMat (Hazardous Materials) trailer. Mortise, a volunteer with Stanwix Heights Fire Department, said if the council approved the purchase of a rescue boat, especially with lack of storage space, he was concerned the department would request the expense of building a new storage facility in the future.

“I don’t want to get new equipment every year, and then in 10 years, you’ll need a new storage building because there’s nowhere to store it,” said Mortise, adding that the rescue boat only carries a “possibility” of use by the fire department.

Smith said she saw the purchase of the rescue boat as being like “an insurance policy,” and was worth the expense “if it saved the life of a child or even one person.”

Rogers agreed, “It’s better to have it and not use it than to have someone perish because we didn’t have it.”

She said for three times (years) the boat wasn’t purchased which meant “it wasn’t a priority at the time,” but priorities had changed since the recent flooding.

“We didn’t buy the boat in 2020 because we didn’t know where we stood with the department’s money,” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Iacovissi added.

Councilors asked if the fund balance could be used instead for the rescue boat purchase, and Treasurer Nolan said, “I would hope it would be a higher or better use” if councilors chose to appropriate fund balance monies toward the purchase of the rescue boat, adding that he’d prefer the city withheld use of the fund balance.

“I have mixed feelings” about the boat purchase, Mortise said, adding that the fire department could partner with other area volunteer companies for shared equipment and services. “But the fire department chooses not to do that.”

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