Atwater looks at new firetruck as potential for Measure H funding

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 23, 2014 

— A shiny, new piece of fire equipment was on display Thursday – and it’s at the top of some wish lists for Measure H funding.

The 109-foot ladder truck is what the Fire Department needs to protect the city, said Cal Fire Battalion Chief Mark Pimentel. The department’s current ladder reaches no more than 35 feet, leaving some larger businesses unprotected in the event of a fire.

“This is a vital piece of equipment for the city,” Pimentel said. “Others might see this as an expenditure that doesn’t need to be made, but it will actually save us from having to purchase an engine in the near future.”

Measure H, the voter-approved special tax to support public safety, added a half-cent tax hike for all transactions. The measure passed with a 67.1 percent vote in March 2013 and is approaching its seventh month of collections.

The fund has accumulated a little more than $500,000, city officials said last week. The tax is estimated to bring in about $1.9 million by the end of the year to be used for public safety.

The firetruck’s average cost ranges from $600,000 to $1 million, Pimentel said, but the agency needs to replace one of its three engines in the near future – one of which is 23 years old. He said the city of Atwater and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection work cooperatively but the new firetruck would belong to the city.

Cal Fire manages personnel while the city provide facilities and equipment. Pimentel also said the ladder truck eliminates the city’s reliance on the Merced Fire Department’s equipment.

“In the next two years we’re going to have to replace a fire engine,” Pimentel said. “We want to make sure we work on getting our own ladder truck so we can provide the service for ourselves.”

As part of the Measure H tax ordinance, Atwater City Manager and police Chief Frank Pietro established a five-member citizens’ oversight committee. The committee doesn’t have the power to determine how to spend Measure H money, but can make recommendations to the City Council.

Several of the committee members were on hand Thursday to see the firetruck, including Chairman Eric Lee. He said the equipment was “impressive” and he’d have no qualms recommending it to the City Council.

“I think it’s something that’s long overdue here,” he said. “It’s a necessary thing for Atwater because we want to grow commercially. You can’t put a building in Atwater higher than 21/2 stories without this equipment.”

Lee said some developers will shy away from building in cities that don’t have the proper fire protection because it could affect insurance rates.

Earlier this month, the City Council voted to consider amending the city’s building height limits to allow builders to construct multilevel structures. The city’s current limit is 35 feet – or 21/2 stories – for commercial businesses.

Instead of replacing old equipment, some residents say Measure H money should be used to hire more police officers.

“I think it’s more important to have police officers with boots on the ground directly addressing crime in our city,” Planning Commissioner Fred Warchol told the Merced Sun-Star earlier this month. “Right now, I believe Atwater has less officers than in past years.”

Before any Measure H funding can be spent, it must come before the City Council for a final vote, according to the tax ordinance.

Sun-Star staff writer Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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