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Wednesday
June 19th, 2019

crown consulting buildingThe former Crown Consulting building located east of the Conestoga building was recently purchased by Seward County for $385,000 to be used as a firefighting education facility. The effort will be a joint operation with the Seward County Community College and Seward County. L&T photo/Jimmy HamptonROBERT PIERCE
• Leader & Times

 

USD 480 recently approved the new addition of a fire science program at Liberal High School, an effort made to recruit much needed firefighters in the area.

Tuesday, another step was taken to recruit more firefighters when Seward County commissioners voted to move forward with the purchase of a building in north Liberal for use of residential firefighter program.

Seward County Administrator April Warden said the project was the brainchild of county fire chief Andrew Barkley, Seward County Community College Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Todd Carter and Rural Fire Board member Rustin Wettstein.

Warden said that group came to the commission a few weeks ago to discuss the program, as well as the building considered for us.

“You had provided Andrew with permission to negotiate a contract price with the buyers for the property located at 120 East 18th Street,” Warden said. “Andrew has done that. They did counter. They did come back with the agreed price that you had agreed to allow him to enter into a contract. We’re back today to let you know that they accepted that price. In front of you in your packets, you have a resolution.”

Because the building would be lease purchased, commissioners approved a resolution by a vote of 4-1, with commissioner C.J. Wettstein voting against. That resolution will now be published twice in the Leader & Times, on June 1 and June 8.

Warden said there will now be a 30-day waiting period similar to that the county went through when a purchase was made for the new home of the Seward County Health Department.

“After that, they could move forward with the process of the closing and everything,” she said. “The reason why we asked you to consider this in a special meeting today is because we publish on June 1 and June 8 and wait the 30-day waiting period before we can move forward. Classes start on Aug. 21. We’re really pushing getting the program up and ready to coincide with when college classes start.”

Commissioners voted 4-1, with Wettstein against, to approve the purchase of the building and authorize Warden to sign the contract in the amount of $385,000.

Warden said that contract was ready to go prior to Tuesday’s special meeting.

“It’s just that the other party hasn’t signed yet until you guys determine that you’re actually going to enter into that,” she said.

Wettstein’s major objection was a lack of a five-year plan from Barkley.

“I had not received that yet,” he said.

Barkley explained that he would have such a plan when the county plans for its annual budget later this year.

“Not until the commission asks all the department heads for a five-year budget,” he said. “To be quite honest with that, that’s kind of impossible because year to year, things could change.”

Warden said commissioner Wettstein asked her to provide numbers for the tax collected for  the property for the last two years.

Wettstein said those numbers were around $17,000 for the past two years in regards to taxes paid on the property. Barkley said only $2,500 of those taxes went to the county, with the remainder to other entities.

Carter said the project commissioners voted on Tuesday was not made to come up with a fire plan.

“This was a joint effort with the county fire department to provide volunteers that we can count on and would be available whenever a fire call came in,” he said. “It was a cost effective way to provide those individuals without having full-time paid positions for those.”

Commissioner Wettstein said the program could benefit the Liberal Fire Department as well.

“They would go on into being full-time firefighters, and I think the City of Liberal could benefit from this program as well,” he said.

Barkley said with the recent addition of LHS’ fire science program, students there could now come to SCCC and get two years of work experience.

He did say, though, that most likely fire students would not be utilized at the county’s stations in Kismet and along the Cimarron River.

“We have to realize that some of these students may have a driver’s license, but may not have a car,” he said. “We’re also going to be placing them on a meal plan because they’re not working full-time jobs or part-time jobs.”

Commission Chairman Nathan McCaffrey said there is a decline in paid volunteer firefighters locally and nationwide.

“You’ll find it’s almost epidemic throughout the United States,” he said. “There are other departments across the nation that are having to get creative like this or spend large amounts of money to just convert everything to full-time firefighters, which gets very expensive.”

McCaffrey estimated a full-time firefighter would cost around $40,000 a year, but Barkley said when benefits are added into the equation, that number grows to about $65,00 to $70,000.

For the pilot year of the program, Barkley said six students will take part, with five new students coming in each year following that.

Barkley said should paid call numbers continue declining, having a program like this in place would keep the fire department from having to raise its budget.

“You’re looking at this program saving county fire payroll in benefits amounting to more than a million dollars a year if we have to go full-time,” he said.

The program, Barkley said, likewise allows the county to better prepare for the future.

“There’s going to come a time where this county’s going to have to look at staffing their stations 24/7, and you’re looking at $1.8 million or more in budget,” he said. “Having this program saves a million dollars a year.”

Barkley said what is being done in Seward County is not new.

“This program is very successful across the United States, even Alaska,” he said. “A lot of universities and colleges have been running this program for a long time.”

As part of the program, students will have their tuition taken care of, in addition to other benefits.

“They’re getting real life work experience,” Barkley said. “They’re getting that education, and a lot of them want to do other things.”

Barkley said the Rural Fire Board will look at the department’s budget in June and will present two budgets at budget workshop, one for a one-year payoff and another for a 10-year lease.

Commissioner Jim Rice said he found the program very beneficial.

“Not very often do we get an opportunity to do something I see as an investment in our future,” he said. “We’re actually a return off of this.”

Like Barkley, Rice said he sees the program reaping benefits for years to come.

“I see this more as an investment in the county’s future and the residents,” he said. “For me, I think it’s a good investment in our future. Also I think it’s a good investment for the college. It gives them the opportunity to educate more kids, bring more kids to their roster and if possible help some stay here in the county.”

Rice also said now is the right time for the county to make the move it did Tuesday.

“I think this is a prime opportunity to make a wise investment,” he said. “Sure, it’s going to cost a little money, but I think the return is going to be well worth the effort.”

McCaffrey said having the program allows the county to have more staff at a much more cost-effective level.

Barkley said he has the plan for the money it will take to purchase the building and get the program started.

“I’m very responsible when I look at my budget,” he said. “We were budgeted $535,000 in 2017. We only spent $499,000. I’m a man of numbers, and I respect the fact that farming’s getting tight. I’m also charged with the fact that I was hired to provide a service, and that’s what I’m trying to do responsibly and financially without putting the burden on everybody in the county. This is the answer that I think we have.”

Commissioner Ada Linenbroker said this is a good situation for Seward County.

“It’s some more money we have to spend, but we’re going to have to spend money some way else,” she said. “Why not do something that we can build on? I can see this moving forward over the years and hopefully keeping some of the firefighters.”

Along with the resolution and contracts, commissioners voted to approve the following motions:

  • • To allow Seward County Clerk Stacia Long to write a manual check in the amount of $5,000 for earnest money to come out of the Rural Fire budge. Vote was unanimous; and
  • • To allow Barkley to get bids for engineer construction, firewall, windows and showers. Vote was unanimous.

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