Really? … $1.2 million for a bathroom, bedroom, shower and earthquake upgrades

Fred Birnbaum Articles

At first glance, the fire department bond measure in Boise appears to have a predictable premise, funding a number of projects to update and upgrade the city’s fire department infrastructure with low-cost municipal debt. Five major projects are detailed for a total cost of $17 million, with the largest at $6.8 million to a build a new “live fire” training facility.

We are also told that spending the money will save taxpayers money because the borrowing costs, now, are less than the costs of construction over several years, when the inflation component is added. The notion is that Boise can borrow at a 2 percent interest cost on the projects now and avoid the 3 to 5 percent estimated annual inflation premium if these projects were done over several years. The punch line has been that the projects will not raise taxes but will improve safety. However, a flier mailed to Boise households by Protectboise.com has upped the ante, “Voting Yes on the fire bond won’t raise your taxes. But it will save lives.”

Other than the training center, the projects are for remodeling, retrofitting and relocating existing facilities. In the case of fire station No. 9, we are told that a bedroom, bathroom and showers for female firefighters are needed at a $1.2 million cost, which also includes earthquake upgrades. Can this really be linked to saving lives?

Does fire station No. 8 really need to be moved to improve response times? Boise’s city website shows performance measures for the fire department on an improvement trend over the listed years, from 2010 to 2012, for fire and EMS “department turnout time.”

Finally, it should be noted that as recently 2011 and 2012, the city spent circa $2 million on fire department capital projects, with the number falling to about $1 million in 2013 and $500,000 in 2014. Growth in overall expenses for the fire department has been held to less than 1 percent per year by decreasing capital spending while allowing personnel expenditures to grow 2 percent per year.

So let’s summarize: A number of projects that improve training, convenience, amenities and potentially safety are essentially being paid for by spreading the costs over time to avoid burdening the fire department with large and publicly unappealing annual spending increases. Even if we assume that the live fire training facility is needed, the problem with the bond measure is that it requires us to support all five projects now.

Remember that money is fungible and more money spent by any one department puts pressure on other city departments to spend less or exceed the overall spending caps. Even if tax rates are not increased now, paying off the bond debt requires funds that could otherwise be returned to the taxpayers in a number of ways. The easiest would be reducing the many fees that the city charges for services or at least forgoing increases.