Graham city councilmen were apparently suffering from sticker shock Tuesday night as fire chief Tommy Cole outlined a proposal to buy a new ladder truck, customized for his department, that might cost $1.8 million.
Cole brought the issue to the council, with the hope that the members would endorse the purchase, which he estimated might take as much as two years to fulfill.
He said he had waited until after the council’s budget consideration (the new fiscal year began July 1) inasmuch as the lead time for building a specified truck has increased from a typical period of 10 to 12 months to about two years, he said.
Instead, the feedback he got was a desire to find a cheaper alternative, rather in the form of a used truck or some other option.
Mayor Jennifer Talley offered her own experience with car purchases as an illustration, “I’ve never bought a new vehicle,” she said, repeating the adage that a car or truck immediately loses value as soon as it’s driven off the sales lot.
Cole offered some examples of used vehicles such as one 2018 model that might be obtained for about $1 million.
Talley said she wasn’t sure it was worth the additional million dollars to have something “brand new” as opposed to buying a relatively new, used fire truck.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me to go try to find something that’s out of date. . . People [i.e., other cities] don’t generally replace a truck [that new] unless they have a problem [with it].” – Graham fire chief Tommy Cole
Cole was not enthusiastic about buying what he termed outdated, used equipment. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Cole told the city council, “to go try to find something that’s out of date.”
He also cautioned, “People [i.e., other cities] don’t generally replace a truck [that new] unless they have a problem [with it].”
Talley also questioned whether there were any available contracts that the city could “piggyback” onto – a process often allowed for various purchases by local governments that allows other municipalities to get the same rate on major equipment when another municipality has already ordered one.
“Can do what we need for half the price? People expect us to be conservative in how we spend [their tax dollars].”
– Graham mayor Jennifer Talley
Talley suggested that she thinks the city “can do what we need for half the price,” adding, “People expect us to be conservative in how we spend [their tax dollars].”
Cole initially persisted in his efforts to persuade the council members that his current fire truck – which is a 2005 model with a 1975 aerial ladder attachment – was on its last legs even though it has only 20,018 miles.
He said the current truck has had “significant maintenance issues” and would not pass its aerial certification. Cole stressed that fire trucks are typically replaced after 20 years, and this one is nearing its life expectancy.
The existing truck is his only “ladder truck,” he said, noting that in 2020 the city was without a ladder truck altogether when this one was sent to Ohio for repairs that took six months.
Cole also insisted that what he’s seeking for the department does not have “all the bells and whistles” that would inflate the cost. “We want a good working apparatus” that his firefighters would feel confident in.
Rather, he suggested that costs for such trucks are increasing at a rate of about 19 to 21 percent annually. He gave as an example that the city of Greensboro had bought a similar ladder truck in 2020 for about $1.2 million, which he tabulated would now cost about $1.6 to $1.7 million.
Cole also said that, while he understood the need to reduce cost, there are risks, he said, to the city and to firefighters if they don’t have the most up-to-date equipment.
Talley reminded the fire chief that the city finds its finances stretched thin because of the need to upgrade the city’s wastewater treatment plant, which has come in at a cost more than twice what had been expected or estimated even as recently as a year ago. The lowest bid for that work was recently received, with a bid estimate of $74 million.
“We do not have the money to pay for that upgrade,” Talley said, underscoring that the fire chief’s request was an unexpected additional request for tax dollars at a time when the city is strapped.
Councilman Joey Parsons asked the chief about any potential sale of Graham’s used truck. The chief estimated that the city might recoup “less than $100,000.”
“Can we look around to find something that would meet your needs that’s newer [than existing truck] that would be cheaper?”
– Graham city council member Bonnie Whitaker
Council member Bonnie Whitaker said she shared the mayor’s perspective, “Can we look around to find something that would meet your needs that’s newer [than existing truck] that would be cheaper?” she asked. She also suggested that a used vehicle could be obtained faster than waiting for two years for a new truck.
Also mentioned was the possibility of obtaining a “demo truck,” or potentially a fire truck ordered by another jurisdiction that subsequently cancelled its order.
Ultimately, by consensus of the council, Cole was sent away with suggestions to come back with a potential alternative to the new fire truck he originally proposed.
It was also mentioned that the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds might be available to purchase a fire truck outright, although not to finance one.
In fact, the council has a special called meeting scheduled for Monday, July 18 at noon to discuss how the city might allocate its $4.98 million in ARPA funds.