Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan stands in front of an engine at Fire Station No. 5, one of the facilities being considered in the Boise Fire Bond vote.
One close vote deserves another.
"I thought we had a chance," said Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan, thinking back to the night of Nov. 5, 2013. "When they started counting the early votes, it was something like 72 percent in favor. I got my hopes up pretty quick."
Doan and a good number of other Boise public officials were keeping a close eye on the election night 2013 vote for Boise Bond No. 1, which would have set aside $6.8 million for construction of a new firefighter training facility and another $10.1 million to upgrade or replace four aging fire stations.
"Throughout the night, the number slowly dropped but I still thought we had a chance," said Doan.
"It was 1 or 2 in the morning, and Mayor Bieter and I decided to go get a slice. Pie Hole was the only place open, so that's where we went," said Doan. "The mayor said: 'This is a priority. We have to get this done. It's a priority for the city and it's a priority that we take this back to the voters.' We were disappointed, but the mayor was pretty encouraging that night."
Thus began the unofficial campaign to rework the financing for the $17 million package. By June 13 of this year, Bieter made it a lot more official, using his State of the City address to announce that this time, there would be no tax hike attached to the bond. Rather, the city would pay down approximately $19 million—the $17 million plus interest and fees—over 10 years.
The Boise Fire Department's shopping list is the same: a new training facility and upgrades or replacements of four fire stations. But the request, said Doan, has greater urgency. When Boise Weekly asked the chief if there was risk to the city, based on the need, he paused for a moment.
"Yes and no. Let me qualify that," Doan said. "Our facilities still work and our firefighters can get to the scene pretty fast. They do an excellent job. But we need to talk about our training facility again."
The chief will tell anybody who will listen that his department's current training facility, off of Americana Boulevard, is pretty close to being worthless. The concrete tower doesn't meet national firefighting standards, and the surrounding building has a stairwell that is nowhere close to being similar to a real house. So, in the meantime, the department is forced to rely on citizens and businesses to donate old homes or buildings slated for demolition to be used as controlled fire situations.
"And that's pretty dangerous. Across the nation, firefighters are killed and/or injured on live-fire training every year," said Doan. "So to answer your questions directly: No, citizen safety is not compromised, but our firefighter safety is."
Then Doan dropped a bit of a stunner into the conversation, pointing to a recent firefighting exercise on the campus of Boise State University. Most of Boise heard about how firefighters practiced their skills as the old Boise State Alumni Building was torched on Aug. 18. What they didn't know is that a firefighter was badly injured in that exercise.
"We had a firefighter suffer third-degree burns on his ears," Doan told BW. "These fires are pretty unpredictable and you don't want your firefighters injured in a training exercise that you can't control. We need to take those precautions."
Doan added that the firefighter was off duty for a while but is "doing OK" now.
"We just don't want a scenario that the first time a rookie goes into a fire is somebody's house ablaze," said the chief.
Doan and the city are already looking at 17 acres of public land off of Joplin Road, near the city's water treatment plant, for a new training facility. But that's only one piece of the bond package. Boise also wants to remodel Fire Station No. 4 on Ustick Road to accommodate the relocation of a ladder truck; build a new Station No. 5 on South 16th Street (the oldest and busiest station in Boise); relocate Station No. 8 on Overland Road to improve response times to the Central Bench and Boise State; and renovate Station No. 9 on State Street and Sycamore Drive, primarily because of gender equity issues (it only has one bedroom, shower and bathroom).
The main question voters will ask this year will be the same as in 2013: Will this impact my taxes?
"The short answer is no," said Jonny Carkin, spokesman for Keep Boise Safe and Livable, the campaign muscle to secure "yes" votes. Officials insist that the city will pay down the $19 million by "using savings from lower contribution rates to an old firefighter pension that is fully funded. Every firefighter will receive every penny that has been been promised them." (In the BW print edition, we wrote that City would pay down the bond using "savings from lower firefighter pensions." That is incorrect. In fact, the City is using savings from lower contribution rates to an old firefighter pension that is now fully funded.)
Carkin's organization is well funded—enough to stuff mailboxes across the city with glossy mailers urging a "yes" vote. The campaign war chest came close to $100,000 in contributions and significant expenses to the Boise office of Strategies 360 ($30,000 has been funneled to the so-called "strategic positioning" and marketing group). But Carkin acknowledges that voter turnout is key.
"We anticipate greater success in some neighborhoods. Yes, we'll go after the low-hanging fruit," he said. "Door-to-door is still effective. And you should see an adequate number of mailers."
Meanwhile, Doan remains confident.
"I think it's going be close, maybe even razor-thin. Two-thirds of the vote is a high bar to meet," said the chief. "But my confidence level is pretty high."