A plan is in place for the Charlie Louis Fire Station to be fully manned by the middle of 2024 after the Columbus City Council approved it during its most recent meeting on Monday, Dec. 18, 2023.
“I am confident it’s the right decision,” Columbus Fire Chief Ryan Gray said after the meeting. “I think it’s overdue, and we’re excited to continue the process of getting people in here and getting that station staffed.”
Gray has maintained and reiterated to the Council on Monday night that staffing Charlie Louis properly 24/7/365 will require one captain and three firefighters per shift, with staffing never falling below four to ensure safe and efficient fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) is provided. Look at Gray's presentation to Council by reviewing the meeting agenda clicking here.
Gray and City Administrator Tara Vasicek were directed by the Council to move forward with finding this immediate solution that was first discussed with members in small group sessions along with other potential scenarios.
WATCH THE SPECIAL VIDEO MESSAGE FROM CHIEF RYAN GRAY ON THE CITY'S YOUTUBE CHANNEL BY CLICKING HERE.
By going this route, the City Council must use general fund unrestricted reserves that currently sit at approximately $10 million and understand using them is not a long-term solution to staffing the Charlie Louis station, Vasicek wrote in a memo to the City Council.
“The City Council must commit to using all-natural growth in general fund revenues over the next one-to-three future fiscal years to cover this added expense and reimburse any reserves expended,” Vasicek stated. “If the City of Columbus does not follow through with this commitment, the City’s general fund unrestricted reserves will be depleted and this will negatively impact the City’s financial position.”
The Columbus Fire Department is currently staffed with 23 career personnel: 18 firefighters, three captains, one assistant chief and one chief. But, as Chief Gray pointed out, its 21 (not including the chief and assistant chief) is lower in comparison to other Nebraska communities like North Platte (39), Fremont (33), Norfolk (31), Hastings (27) and Beatrice (24). These comparisons don’t factor in any administrative positions in any of these departments.
The national average of career firefighters per 1,000 residents is 1.54 to 1.81, according to the National Fire Protection Agency U.S. Fire Department Profile 2020. With the approved plan to hire nine additional CFD professionals, Columbus Fire’s average will jump from 0.74 career firefighters per 1,000 residents to 1.24.
“We voted to move forward with it. I’m not crazy about using unrestricted reserves, but it’s the only way we could do it and we need to get that station covered,” First Ward City Councilman Charlie Bahr said. “I wish we could have done it a long time ago.”
Bahr and Council President Rich Jablonski in separate conversations said they both felt good about the plan, noting the small group sessions addressed all questions and paved the way for the unanimous (7-0, one First Ward seat is currently vacant) decision during the meeting.
“It was very helpful. Lots of questions were answered and we understood what the scope of the project was going to be not just this year, but every year as it moves forward,” Jablonski said, adding that public safety is of the utmost importance so approving the plan was the right choice.
“It's a good plan and a good start. We are being fiscally responsible with our money. It's a good thing we do have the reserve fund of some size we can get on for situations like this. Let's hope we don't have to use it any more than we have to."
Mayor Jim Bulkley did not have a vote on the Council but participated in those small group sessions in which options were presented and discussed. He praised the entire Council and staff for “doing their homework” when it came to researching and analyzing options. That is why the Council was comfortable approving this plan, he noted.
“It was a very important topic. It was one not only about the safety and well-being of our citizens and being able to respond to their needs but also from a financial standpoint. The financial impact of this decision is huge,” the mayor said. “The Council needed to make sure it was comfortable with the decision. We all needed to be, and we are. I’m very pleased.”
Although he acknowledged he didn’t love using the general fund unrestricted reserves, Bahr pointed out that City leadership and the Council have a track record of being fiscally responsible, as shown in its annual audit reports. So, he said he’s optimistic things will work out and the community will ultimately benefit from the decision.
“I’m confident in our plan,” Bahr said. “It may take us a couple of years to replenish those funds, but I’m sure we can do it.”
Gray praised Vasicek, Mayor Bulkley and the City Council for their ongoing commitment to supporting public safety in Columbus. He added he hopes the public understands the City is committed to serving its residents.
“I think the important thing is we hear your concerns and we take them seriously. Sometimes it takes us a little longer for things to happen than the public would like for it to take, but we are committed to working through those concerns,” Gray said. “We are going to work as quickly as possible. We’re committed to getting this done by the middle of next year.”
Watch the full Columbus City Council meeting that took place on Dec. 18 by clicking here.
Copyright © 2023 City of Columbus