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Clarksburg fire truck funding topic of debate

by James Fisher

REGIONAL WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Many times in municipal government, making a decision is based solely on getting the best deal. Sometimes, deciding what is the best deal can be complex.

A good example of that is the financing for the Clarksburg Fire Department's new aerial ladder truck, which is causing a bit of a stir among council members.

Two options for purchasing the truck were presented to council -- one option would cost less for the next four years, while the other would cost less overall.

At a Dec. 14 meeting, council voted 5-2 to accept the offer from Comvest Ltd. Inc.

That deal will cost the city nearly $82,000 less over the next four years, but will end up being more than $83,000 more expensive over the life of the loan (see adjacent box).

While Finance Director Frank Ferrari said that the Bank One deal was the best overall, he qualified that by saying that sometimes a municipality has to bite the bullet in order to balance the budget.

That reasoning does not sit well with at least one council member.

"We can't go $80,000 more on anything when we're telling supervisors, 'you can't do something because we don't have the money'," said Councilwoman Margaret Bailey, who voted for the Bank One plan.

City Manager Tom Vidovich said city officials can't make major decisions based on a single narrow issue. Several factors must be taken into account, including a balanced budget, generated revenues and ever-increasing expenditures.

Bailey likened the decision to use Comvest to purchasing a home and choosing financing that costs more in the end. Using the same analogy, Vidovich said city officials have to get as good of a deal as possible, while still ensuring that they get what they pay for.

"If you had to have that five bedroom house and had no choice because of a fixed income and fixed circumstances, you'd do what you could to get the payments down," he said. "Basically, the family -- the city -- has to live within their means, and sometimes that means putting things to the future."

Councilman Terry Greaver agreed that paying less over the next several years is in the best interest of the city budget.

"Also, maybe the rates will come down in the future and we can refinance the loan," he said.

In fact, Ferrari already has begun looking into the possibility of refinancing the loan. Last week, Ferrari met with officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development's Community Facilities Loan Program. He said they seemed receptive to the city's position and even though they usually don't refinance existing loans, it remained a possibility.

An additional option that council could have explored was going with the Bank One plan and then raising some fee or tax to make up the extra money needed. However, Vidovich said that raising taxes or fees -- never a popular decision with city residents -- wasn't a viable option in this day and age of a questionable economy.

Raising a fee or tax for a short period of time, just long enough to cover the added cost, also wasn't feasible, he said. In that case, it's better for city officials to get more voter input -- schedule an election -- but that either is cost prohibitive (special elections are expensive) or time prohibitive (the next regular election isn't until June).

Vice Mayor Kathryn Folio, who also voted for the Bank One plan, said that if the budget is as tight as Ferrari and Vidovich say, another option could have been explored.

Folio said council should have kept renting the fire truck they have used since the old one was sent for repairs and waited until the end of this year when the first of two parking revenue bonds is paid in full.

"Sometimes you have to rent before you can buy," she said.

City officials also are hopeful that the economic climate improves over the next few years, making it possible to revisit the financing issue again.

"With a fairly tight budget, like we have, it's helpful to pay less now with the hope that the ability to pay larger dollars later will improve," Vidovich said.

Putting hope on an uncertain future is not something that Bailey wants to be remembered for.

"The only defense they have, the other side of the coin, is that it will save money in the first four years, we're in a financial pinch and maybe something will work out in four years. In four years, there's a chance that no one sitting on council now will still be there and it could be a whole new council dealing with this," Bailey said.

"This could end up being the legacy of this council."

Regional writer James Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com.

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