2016-08-25 / Front Page

Long Road Ahead for Fireboat

By Barry Bridges

The City of Newport is taking the next steps to pursue a federal grant to help cover the cost of a new fire and rescue boat.

By a 5-2 margin, councilors voted on Wednesday, Aug. 24, on a resolution to move forward with the application process. Reiterating concerns they expressed two weeks earlier when the matter was continued, Councilors Kathryn Leonard and Justin McLaughlin dissented from the majority.

Several councilors and City Manager Joseph Nicholson emphasized that the vote means that there will be a further vetting of the grant and the commitments involved, but does not yet require the city to purchase anything.

“The vote we’re about to take tonight does not obligate us to a purchase of any boat,” said Councilor John Florez, who has maintained that a fireboat is necessary to protect harbor assets. “I see this as a mere formality to get us to the next step.”

“This is almost a semantic exercise,” Nicholson agreed. “The specifications haven’t even been developed completely. The administration has a responsibility to go through that, get to a final product, and come back to the council… At the end of this process, you will have to approve a contract.”

The cost of the vessel that has been initially discussed would be $964,500, with the city responsible for 25 percent of that, or $241,125. The federal government’s 75 percent share would be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It would succeed the city’s current rescue boat, which is almost 16 years old. The capital budget already contains $267,500 to fund a replacement.

Florez said, “This isn’t a shiny toy…it’s a lifesaving apparatus that we need as one of the boat capitals of the world. We do need to vet it more, and there’s time to do that.”

Adding her support, Councilor Lynn Ceglie noted that Newport’s “robust and vibrant” harbor is “one of the busiest in the world.” She continued, “I see this as an opportunity to afford something that we could not otherwise afford.”

But the lengthiest comments of the evening came from McLaughlin and Leonard, who did not want the matter brought to a vote and expressed their concerns about conditions that may be attached to accepting federal funds for the boat. They pointed to Nicholson’s language in a memo where he stated that the envisioned boat would be able to respond to “chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive” incidents.

“I agree that we need to replace the existing boat that the fire department uses for rescue, and we put money in the [budget] for that, but how did we get to a vote on a boat with chemical/biological/radiological/ nuclear capabilities?” asked McLaughlin.

“This is subtly transferring the responsibility for terrorism from the federal government to the City of Newport…. We need to take the time to consider other alternatives,” he added.

McLaughlin also described his worry of “mission creep,” with a sophisticated boat possibly meaning that the city takes on unanticipated roles. “People who buy Corvettes don’t leave them in the garage,” he said.

To those arguments, Nicholson replied, “I agree that the wordsmithing of the application may get in the way… but here the end justifies the means…. Despite this being a federal grant, we do not have a legal obligation to act in any way. We will not be federalized.”

Leonard asked, “I think we probably have a really strong need for a rescue/ambulance boat, but most boats that are on fire sink. Do we need a boat that may or may not make it to put out a fire?” She also felt that the city’s Waterfront Commission should be given more opportunity to weigh in.

Matt Gineo of Oldport Marine Services addressed councilors during public comments and echoed McLaughlin’s hope that other boat options would be considered.

“A $400,000 vessel would qualify for the same grant, which would cost less to maintain and less in training. It would be more suited to our modest needs,” Gineo said. “There’s a saying in my industry: Boats ain’t cheap.”

McLaughlin suggested that the cost of a fireboat could perhaps be borne by boat owners and others who use the harbor. “We should look to see that people who will actually benefit are paying for it,” he offered.

To that, Councilor Naomi Neville said, “Our harbor is an economic generator that boosts our entire economy. To say that the costs should go only to boat owners is a bit simplistic.”

Nicholson advised councilors that the city has until approximately mid-December to make a final decision on the grant.

Prior to the vote directing the administration to continue with its research on any issues presented in accepting federal money, Ceglie referenced Leonard’s statement that the application and its requirements should be “properly and substantially” vetted.

“I completely agree,” said Ceglie, “and I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

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