Fire Chief Bart Castleberry plans to ask the Conway City Council for new fire trucks, but Mayor Tab Townsell said funds will not be available for some time.

Castleberry said Rescue One, the heavy rescue truck at the central fire station, had to be towed Monday. A diagnostic had not been performed on the truck by Monday afternoon. Two engines were out of service, one because of a malfunctioning transmission and one because of a faulty fuel pump, he added. It will take about three days to make the repairs.

"The week before last we had three trucks go down in the same day," Castleberry said. "Fortunately, no one has suffered any loss. We have two reserve engines and a reserve rescue that we were able to put into service. If we have any more loss in the next 72 hours, we will have to look at moving some trucks around to keep from closing stations."

The oldest trucks were manufactured in 1995, not counting one of the reserve engines, which is a 1975 model, Castleberry said. Trucks were also purchased in 1997 and 1998, and the newest one is from sometime after the year 2000, he said.

"Technology changes every day. After a matter of time they don’t keep parts. Conway is a very busy department. They’re used a lot, as well they should be," he added.

A fire engine costs about $400,000 to $500,000, he said. A ladder truck costs about $800,000 to $1.2 million, and a heavy rescue truck costs about $350,000 to $400,000, Castleberry said. The department has seven front-line engines, two front-line ladder trucks, one heavy rescue truck and two reserve engines.

Castleberry said while the department has a couple of employees who are certified to work on fire trucks and does much of its repairs in-house, it has overspent its vehicle maintenance budget for the year. He said the department started the year with $47,000 and has spent $61,500 on vehicle maintenance. He estimated he would have to ask the city council for another $20,000 to complete the year.

"We’re going to have to look at replacing some," he said. 

In the past, the city has relied on bond issues to purchase fire trucks, acquiring about three at a time, Castleberry said.

"They’re all roughly the same age. We need to start now, two or three at a time. I just don’t know how we’re going to do that. I know things are tight. I know money is tight. It will take some strong action."

Townsell said it is "about time" to replace the trucks, but, the city doesn’t "have the money to go out and wholesale replace them."

He said, "All those older trucks are aging now and they’re starting to experience more mechanical troubles. It’s only appropriate that we start looking at replacing them. Obviously it’s not something we’ve built into the budget, so we have to find the revenue to do that."

In the short run, he said, the city will use its reserves to fund the repairs. In the long run, some kind of capital plan will be needed, but a bond issue is not an option at this time.

He said the city is frozen by the state usury law, which caps cities and counties using tax revenue to charging only 2 percent over the federal discount rate. That rate is now 0.5 percent.

"We can offer bonds at 2.5 percent. No one is going to take a long-term bond that pays only that much. The market demands 4 to 5 percent," he said. "The bond market has been blocked out. It looks like interest rates will be below 1 percent for some time in the future."

He went on to point out that, if the city carved $500,000 out of the budget for a fire engine, it would mean layoffs, no new hires and "probably more troubles on an already tough budget year."

Townsell added, "A lot of people will say ‘stop building streets’ or ‘stop building parks,’ but street money can only be spent for streets, and park money can only be spent for parks. We can’t take street money or park money and buy fire trucks, by law."

Sales tax collections are down and revenues are flat, and the city will have to dip into its reserves so that it can buy police cars next year, "which is another major thing we weren’t able to do this year. Typically we buy them every year," Townsell said.

He concluded by saying that, until the city can acquire a revenue source for the fire trucks, it will keep repairing them.

"The maintenance cost to keep them running is going to be higher, which is a smaller cost than to buy a new one."

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