The Niles Fire Department claims its aging fleet of fire trucks has the department in dire straits, but city officials have countered the money is not there for replacing the expensive vehicles.
With two of the city's five trucks out of operation and another on the brink, Niles firefighter and union president Murphy Miller reached out to city council in July, but he said action has not yet been taken to remedy the issue.
"I'm disappointed," Miller said. "I don't have an answer for how to fix the problem, but I know this is something that needs to be addressed right now."
Tribune Chronicle / Ashley Newman
Niles firefighter Chris Votino stands with a 1989 fire truck which has become the source of debate between city administration and the fire department. The truck needs approximately $50,000 in work.
The biggest questions remain what to do about a 1989 pumper truck requiring some $50,000 in repairs from brakes to plumbing. The truck has been out of service for several months.
Council has appropriated $25,000 to fix the brakes on the vehicle, and officials claim they are willing to pay whatever it takes to get the truck back on the road.
"The department is holding it up, not me," Niles Mayor Ralph A. Infante said flatly Wednesday evening. "I appropriated the $25,000 two or three months ago to get it fixed and told them to get the engineering study to see what else needed to be done."
According to Miller, the engineering study resulted in the $50,000 figure, but due to its age, the union is concerned putting more money into the 24-year-old vehicle may not be worth it in the long run.
"The union just feels like the vehicle could break down tomorrow just because of its age," Miller said. "Something else might go on it, maybe the motor, transmission or axle could go. We take good care of our trucks, but nothing will run forever. I don't make the final decision though."
The trade-in value for the truck, Miller said, is just $10,000.
Even if the truck is fixed, Miller said the status of the city's fleet remains a major concern. Operable city fire trucks include a 1990 pumper and two vehicles purchased around 2000.
The average life expectancy for a fire truck, Miller said, is around 15 years.
A 35-year-old ladder truck recently failed its annual certification due to metal fatigue, rendering it unusable. Repairs are not available because the manufacturer has gone out of business.
The city's financial difficulties over the past six years have left officials few options but to cut budgets and look for savings when possible. The safety forces budget is funded solely through the general fund.
A recent report by the Tribune Chronicle also found the city's police vehicles in need of newer models.
However, according to the Niles Auditor's Office, the city's general fund has always relied heavily on interest and income tax. Figures provided to the Tribune Chronicle show the city's accrued interest is down from about $1 million annually six years ago to about $40,000 per year now.
In addition, the city has seen a dramatic loss of income tax coming into the city due to the closure of several plants, including the General Electric Co.'s Mahoning Glass plant in 2010. Documents provided by the auditor show income tax collected in Niles down from about $6.3 million in 2007 to $5.7 million last year.
Because of these fiscal issues, the city has cut back on purchases and personnel for the city's safety service departments. According to Miller, the authorized strength for the department is 30 firemen, but Niles currently has 27.
Two more firefighters are set to retire this coming year with no new hires planned, according to department officials.
The budget cuts have left the department in a precarious situation. Along with the obvious safety issues the reduced fleet and personnel presents, Miller is concerned the lack of resources may affect insurance rates for city residents.
Niles is preparing for an evaluation by the Insurance Services Office (ISO), a national organization that rates fire districts on their abilities to fight fires. Each district is rated on a scale between 1 and 10 approximately once every 10 or more years in an effort to evaluate department readiness.
The Niles Fire Department has a rating of five, but Miller warns that rating could increase if the problems are not addressed.
"The state of your fleet is a big part of it, but they look at the department as a whole," Miller said.
If the ISO does determine these problems should result in a rating drop, Niles residents could see an increase in their fire insurance.
Councilman Ed Stredney, an account executive at Merlo Insurance, said this increase could result in hundreds of dollars for homeowners.
"If we moved up one or two classes, you are probably talking about a $100 to $150 increase in those rates," Stredney said. "On the other hand, I think we should be aggressive and take the proper steps to fix the problem."
One possible solution, officials said, is for the department to apply for a federal grant. Warren police and fire received a Federal Emergency Management Administration grant in 2012 which paid for 95 percent of a new $349,990 pumper truck.
Other local communities also have used grants to strengthen their safety service fleets, but department officials in Niles claim they have not been successful in applying for help recently.
"Maybe they need to do a better job of filing those," Infante said. "I don't know what the problem is, but other communities are getting fire trucks. Why aren't we getting them?"
The department enlisted the help of a grant writer last year, Miller said, but the request still failed.
"We did get a grant for all new hoses," Miller said. "But, we failed on the truck. Now, that grant writer will do them again for us this year for free, but we can't count on that."