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Date of Issue: January 06, 2010

WMFR spends $1 million-plus to expand

Members of the West Manatee Fire Rescue District board at their Dec. 29 special meeting were unmoved by a last-minute appeal from citizens to hold off on a $1.1 million building purchase to expand office space and storage needs.

The board voted 3-1 to approve the purchase, with vice chairman Jesse Davis opposed.

The board will use part of its $1.3 million contingency fund to purchase the property, located about 100 yards from the WMFR Station No. 4 on 67th Street West, Bradenton, then seek a financial agreement with a lending institution that will return most of the purchase price to the contingency fund.

But some members of the public, including Holmes Beach City Commissioner Al Robinson, expressed displeasure with the purchase, particularly in view of difficult economic times for the district taxpayers.

He said it did not make good sense to purchase an 11,000-square-foot building to house five administrative staff members.

“Please, rethink and justify this. Would you do this if this was your kingdom?” Robinson asked.

He claimed the board has a “fiduciary responsibility” to district taxpayers, but was “out of control” with its purchase and spending. Robinson asked the board to “back out” of the deal.

Holmes Beach real estate agent Don Schroder concurred with Robinson, noting that recent reports indicate better deals for existing properties are coming in the near future in Manatee County.

Other members of the public spoke against the proposal, saying they had just become aware that the board was considering the purchase and would have been more active in opposing the measure had they known of the plan.

Commissioner Randy Cooper, however, noted that the board has been discussing adding to its facilities for the past two years, if not longer. It’s not a new idea that the board has sprung on the public, he indicated.

“I’m surprised some people are saying they just heard about this now. We have two reporters here who have been reporting on this for at least the past two years. And some people are just now coming forward to say this is the first they’ve heard of this,” Cooper said.

WMFR Chief Andy Price said the board has been considering expansion for the past 10 years and everything about this purchase has been out in the open and discussed at public meetings.

The board hired a company in 2009 to study its existing facilities, Price said. That company recommended the district either construct a new building to contain all administrative staff, along with equipment storage, training and executive rooms, or purchase and renovate an existing structure.

When the cost to build a new facility was estimated at $4 million, the board began looking at existing properties. The building near Station No. 4 met nearly all criteria for the addition, he said.

It will cost the board an additional $300,000 to upgrade and renovate the building, but the board will then have a solid asset, Price maintained.

The purchase price is $1 million less than the asking price one year ago.

With the new building, equipment now stored at the other fire stations can be moved to a central facility. All administrative staff will be at the building, freeing up space for firefighters to have decent living quarters when on duty at their respective stations, Price said.

The new building also will provide meeting and training rooms and allow each battalion chief an office.

“This is a functional building,” said Cooper, adding that any building WMFR purchases must be within the district.

“This is not the best or ideal structure, but it’s functional. We’ve looked and looked and this seems to fit the bill” for the WMFR needs, Cooper said.