2017-03-02 / Front Page

Newport Closes in on New City Fireboat

By Tom Walsh

Newport appears on the way to purchasing a new $964,500 fireboat that city officials maintain will not cost taxpayers a dime.

When the City Council meets on March 8, the docket will include a recommendation from an informal nine-member ad hoc committee that it acquire a 37-foot Moose Boat Catamaran similar to the fire and rescue boat currently being used by the North Kingstown Fire Department.

The committee includes Newport harbormaster Thomas Mills, Newport fire chief Peter D. Connerton, Jr. and current or past members of the Newport Waterfront Commission.

“My understanding is that the group that vetted the fireboat issue was unanimous in their recommendation,” Mayor Harry Winthrop said.

Winthrop added, “I believe the votes are there to approve it.”

City officials took a close look at the North Kingstown vessel last August when they began to seriously consider replacing the city’s outdated fireboat. Since that time, most discussions have centered on the Moose Boat Catamaran.

“That boat would be perfect for Newport Harbor,” Winthrop said. “And it would be cost-neutral.

"It would essentially cost the taxpayers nothing.”

The Newport Fire Department evaluated three boats and shared the comparison data with the committee, making clear that its preferred choice was the Moose Boat Catamaran.

“It was evident that the Fire Department had done its due diligence,” said Hank Kniskern, a committee member and former chairman of the Newport Waterfront Commission.

Kniskern said that the price differences were insignificant. “The Moose Boat costs a little more, but the value to the community will be quite a bit more.”

City Manager Joseph J. Nicholson Jr. said the committee rejected other boats because it felt that the Moose Boat’s catamaran design offered additional stability that is essential to the operation of a fireboat.

“We felt that this was the best possible outcome for the city,” Kniskern said.

City officials said that a federal Emergency Management Agency port security grant would cover 75 percent of the cost of acquiring the new fireboat. Because the need for a new fireboat was anticipated one year ago, enough money was included in the current fiscal year budget to cover the additional 25 percent.

Concerns over the cost of maintaining the vessel were lessened last September when Peter D. Kiernan, a Newport philanthropist and retired investment banker, told the committee he would donate $200,000 to help pay for the boat. Kiernan’s contribution would enable the city to establish a dedicated maintenance fund to help cover maintenance costs once the new boat goes into service.

Kniskern said simply replacing the old boat would have cost about the same amount as the city had budgeted. “We were told that our job was to get the best possible outcome for the city. That’s what we did,” he said.

More recently, a bill was submitted in the state House of Representatives by Rep. Julie Casimiro, D-North Kingstown, that would earmark $6,000 each for fireboats in Newport, Middletown, Jamestown, Portsmouth, Tiverton, Little Compton, East Greenwich, Narragansett, Barrington, Warren and Bristol. If enacted, the law would take effect on July 1.

Each of the communities is among the Rhode Island cities and towns that are participating in the Narragansett Bay Marine Task Force.

Casimiro’s bill was referred to the House Finance Committee, where the chairman is Rep.

Marvin L. Abney, D-Newport. Abney declined to comment on the bill.

Asked if he was optimistic about the fireboat purchase receiving approval by the City Council,

Connerton Jr., the Newport fire chief, said, “I really don’t want to speculate.”

Nicholson Jr., Newport City Manager, praised the process that resulted in the recommendation.

“Some members of the committee said they had approached the project with some skepticism. But they got over that with the discussion and information that went into this process. I think it all seemed to work out quite well,” he said.

Said Kniskern, “We were pretty skeptical [at the outset]. We were talking about a fireboat but we didn’t have many fires. We didn’t want the city burdened by expenses that would have long-term consequences.”

Kniskern said the boat that was ultimately chosen makes sense as a rescue vessel and a fireboat. “It is a multi-functional boat with a lot of potential value. [City officials] did the homework. The process worked, and there was respect for everyone.”

Mayor Winthrop summed up the situation this way: “The sailing capital of the world just has to have a fireboat.”

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