The Liberty County Board of Commissioners voted 6-1 during Tuesday’s meeting to accept a $782,000 contractor bid for the west-end fire station.
Commissioners discussed the project for about 55 minutes before deciding on the matter, and the discussion, at times, became tense.
After the July mid-month meeting when architect Rusty McCall presented his station design, some commissioners suggested looking at alternatives, County Administrator Joey Brown said.
The station will be the first building of its kind to be owned by Liberty County, and the county also is in the process of exploring options for a similar facility on the east end, he said.
The county general fund covered the land acquisition for the project. The rest of the funding will come out of the $3 million in Office of Economic Adjustment funds awarded to Liberty County as brigade remediation, and no SPLOST funds will contribute to the project.
On Tuesday night, McCall presented tentative plans to the board that would shave an estimated $45,000-$50,000 in materials and labor costs off the project.
McCall’s proposal included reducing the height of the structure, initially designed to have an upstairs training room, by 7 feet to cut about $12,000. Shortening the structure would provide only 2 feet of clearance above the 12-foot truck doors and would eliminate the upper room, knocking the building’s square footage down from 5,900 to 4,784, he said.
“Would that be sufficient for the future if we got a larger piece of equipment in?” Commissioner Marion Stevens asked, expressing concern that the modifications would limit the facility’s future growth.
Once construction is complete, the Gum Branch Fire Department, a private nonprofit enterprise, will move into the space, Brown said. In the future, fire officials plan to staff the station with paid county or contract employees, Liberty County Fire Coordinator James Ashdown said during the meeting.
McCall responded that the height of the doors for the trucks to enter would be more of a limiting factor than the height of the ceiling.
Commissioner Connie Thrift asked whether removing the upstairs training room would prevent the station from meeting International Organization for Standardization qualifications. A better ISO score would result in lower homeowners insurance costs for homes within the area, Thrift said after the meeting.
Expressing a desire to streamline the project’s budget, Commissioner Pat Bowen jumped into the conversation.
“Miss Thrift, all these other fire stations use their fire stations as a training room,” Bowen said. “Or they go there to Walthourville or use the one that the city of Hinesville has. I know that in Fleming and Lake George — that’s in my district, both of them — when they have training, all they have to do is move the truck out.”
Bowen continued that he did not want to “beat up” the topic of ISO standards, but he believes that the station would qualify without a training room.
In a post-meeting interview with the Courier, Bowen said he was disappointed that the commission did not take caution to get bids from companies that specialize in steel construction.
“It was never a question of whether we were going to build one or not,” he said. “It was just how we were going to build it, what type of design and the money we were going to spend on it.”
Bowen said he spoke about costs with Joe Martin at the East Liberty Fire Station in Sunbury.
“He was telling me, ‘I’ve got $175,000 in this building; today I could probably build it for $300,000,’” he said in the interview, adding that cutting costs anywhere would be beneficial to the community. “If you could save $300,000 … couldn’t you use that money somewhere for the Fire Authority?”
Like the prior meeting, volunteers with the Gum Branch Fire Department and District 3 constituents came to the meeting to show their support for the project. One man, who left the meeting early, muttered oppositions to Bowen’s comments under his breath.
Ashdown came to the podium and explained that ISO qualifications are based on a complex point system that takes water, training rooms and general facilities into account.
“We would lose points,” he said about removing the training room. “But I can tell you that the height above the trucks, it needs to be a certain height where we can walk on top of them and load the hoses. If we can’t do that, then we’re out in the rain loading hoses, and it’s just not modern-day thinking.”
He added that the Lake George facility does have a training room.
Bowen also suggested replacing the building’s concrete and metal framing with lumber products, which are more economical.
“We owe it to the taxpayers to make sure we keep the costs down and make sure we have a good facility,” Bowen said.
The building was designed to be noncombustible, and introducing wood-based materials would make it combustible, which would result in different construction standards and higher insurance costs, McCall said.
After more discussion on the topic, Stevens spoke again.
“Now, we all agreed that we need this fire station,” he said. “And, yes, the price came in just a little more than what we expected. But the other day we sat up here and looked at an animal shelter that’s going to cost well over $1 million to put stray dogs in, and it’s only going to put 16 (dogs) in. And here we are trying to do a fire station, and it looks like we’re beating it to death.”
A couple of members in the audience interrupted Stevens’ statement with applause, and he asked them to stop.
“I think we need to move on, and if we made some mistakes in this project … then let’s try and make sure that the next fire station that we build doesn’t have these problems,” he said.
Thrift also voiced her support for the original plans.
The board voted 6-1, with Bowen opposing, to adopt the plan without the proposed modifications.
All commission members were present.