The Decatur City Council on Monday unanimously authorized application for a $581,933 Port Security Grant to purchase a boat which Decatur Fire & Rescue said was absolutely essential for its mission of protecting Decatur lives and property.
If the grant is approved and the boat is acquired, the city will have to pay a match of $146,566, plus the ongoing costs of maintenance and, after the grant runs out, training.
To be sure, a fire boat could be useful in the River City. Decatur has marinas that can catch fire, considerable boat traffic and maybe most significantly riverfront industries that use toxic and flammable chemicals.
But there are red flags here that merit attention.
For one, the expense is not in the budget. While emergencies and opportunities arise that require unbudgeted expenses, the fact is that Decatur Fire & Rescue has never had a boat and has thus far avoided the sort of catastrophe that a fire boat could control.
Also concerning is that the Fire Department has access to boats, those owned by the nonprofit Morgan County Rescue Squad and another — purchased with a Port Security Grant in 2015 — operated by the Decatur Police Department.
The pitch made to a reluctant council by the Police Department when it sought approval to apply for the grant in 2014 is instructive. Then, as now, council members questioned whether the city could use the Morgan County Rescue Squad boats. The all-volunteer Rescue Squad noted that its three boats could be crewed by members of either the police or fire departments when necessary.
The Rescue Squad also said that large riverfront industries have their own boats equipped to mitigate hazardous materials and extinguish fires, and that the Alabama Marine Patrol also provides some coverage in Decatur.
The former police chief presented the 2015 purchase as a joint project of the police and fire departments, stressing that the boat would be available to Decatur Fire & Rescue in hazardous material situations. Both the police boat and the Rescue Squad boats could deploy booms in the event of an industrial release into the river, officials said.
The council ultimately approved the grant application but then refused to authorize the purchase of the boat because of the $47,500 price tag for the city. Contributions from local industries were enough that the Police Department was nonetheless able to acquire the vessel.
While it is generally bad form to apply for a federal grant and then reject it, city officials need to do their homework before using $146,566 in city funds to buy a $460,000 boat.
An issue that was much debated in 2014 was the cost of maintaining the police rescue boat. The police chief at the time estimated fuel alone would cost $12,000 per year, but no firm estimates were provided on other maintenance costs.
A good preliminary step, therefore, would be to find out how much the city has paid to maintain the police boat over the last six years, figuring that the fire boat would cost at least as much. Both police and the Rescue Squad should be consulted on how often they have responded to incidents on the water that could have been better handled by a well-equipped fire boat.
If the boat would be kept on the water, any dock fees should be calculated. If not kept on the water, an analysis needs to be made of the utility of a fire boat that needs to be driven to the river before it is deployed. If a boat catches on fire in the river, would the Decatur Fire & Rescue vessel arrive soon enough to put it out? Or would it simply arrive after Rescue Squad boats and the police boat — which are all kept on the water for quick access — had assisted the burned boat’s occupants?
A survey of local industries would also seem prudent. Do they already have boats that are better equipped for industrial hazards than the boat being eyed by the Fire Department?
Kudos to Decatur Fire & Rescue for wanting the best-equipped department possible, but city funding is finite and expenses should be prioritized. That means carefully studying both the ongoing expenses and the utility of adding a boat to the department’s inventory.