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A request for assistance

Solon firefighters ask county supervisors to help build the house

IOWA CITY– Solon’s volunteer firefighters have been working for roughly two years to build a new fire station on the south side of town.
The firefighters have received donations from young and old, from local businesses and various corporations, and from across the country via online donations.
Now they are turning to the county government.
The eight-bay station with office space for chief officers, equipment storage space, a small conference/meeting room, a large meeting/training room, a day room, kitchen and dorm rooms, and a basement with more training and meeting space has a $4.3 million estimated construction cost. Dedicated space for a potential Johnson County ambulance is also in the plans.
Solon Recreation Advisory Team member Melissa Tiedemann, Solon Tri-Township Fire Department Chief Bob Siddell, and firefighter Greg Morris reached out to the Johnson County Board of Supervisors with a funding request at the board’s Wednesday, April 15, work session through teleconferencing.
Morris told the supervisors the all-volunteer department covers 110 square miles including all of Big Grove, Cedar and Newport townships, part of Grant Township, the City of Solon, part of Lake Macbride and the Coralville Reservoir, the Celebration Barn, the Solon OHV Park, a bike trail, and several different campgrounds. “We cover the largest land area of any fire department (in Johnson County),” he said. “It keeps us busy.”
The 35 members anticipate approximately 500 calls for service this year, and are on-pace for another record year of responses.
The current fire station was originally built in 1958 and added onto in 1990. But as trucks have gotten larger, and with more roles for the firefighters, they now face a profound lack of space with no more room to expand. Morris had a PowerPoint presentation shown to the supervisors, which included a slide showing the department’s ATV and a county boat (housed and operated by the Solon firefighters) both tucked away in hard to get to spots in the apparatus bays.
“We gotta move a vehicle out of the way to get it (the ATV, on a trailer) set up to hook it up and respond,” he said. “Our boat is in a bad spot where we gotta move a vehicle out against the wall, then move the trailer out and get it hooked up to respond.” Another photograph showed the limited space between a truck and the racks where the firefighters don their turnout gear before responding.
He also pointed out a “good problem to have” for the city of Solon, which acts as a double-edged sword for the firefighters. Business along Main Street, before the COVID-19 virus, was very good, with full parking spaces. The traffic is a challenge for firefighters responding to the station for an emergency call, and the parking requires the apparatus drivers to proceed cautiously.
“It makes it pretty tight to get out and around,” Morris said. “We get through it OK though, we take our time and operate safely.” The new location removes both issues with easy access to and from Highway 1.
Morris asked the supervisors for a commitment of $50,000 over a two-to-three-year period to help with construction costs. He noted the land has already been purchased, and $700,000 had been raised to date. He also pointed out unlike a municipality or other government entity, the department’s governing body is unable to do a bond issue for the money. Morris added landowners in the fire district are being assessed a levy of $0.6075 per $1,000 of valuation, the maximum taxation for fire protection under the Iowa Code.
“We do not have a way to bond or generate additional tax dollars,” Chief Siddell told the supervisors.
“The (governance) board is willing to borrow up to $1 million,” the Chief added.
Supervisor Lisa Green-Douglass, by telephone, expressed her interest in supporting the project. “I like this project a lot, and I know how much it is needed, so this is really something that is community-wide, it’s a public safety issue. I like the idea you are also considering possible space for an ambulance there. The ask is for over two-to-three years for a total of $50,000. We’re already out of our budget for this coming year (FY21, starting July 1).” She asked if the department could wait until next year’s budget.
Morris said they have commitments out to five years, and added, “It’s well within what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Supervisor Pat Heiden said one of her concerns was what if the board received a similar request from another fire department, such as Oxford or Tiffin. “Going forward it would be imperative that a Johnson County ambulance would have a home in the firehouse,” she said. “I think that would be a great partnership, and that would be a key element for me.”
Supervisor Janelle Rettig, also by phone, pointed out the board would be setting a precedent if it agreed to the funding request. “There are a lot of fire stations in the county, and the county can’t fund them all,” she said. “Can the board do something for one entity that we wouldn’t do for every other one in the county?”
Rettig suggested looking at the percentage of population in the unincorporated area, and basing any funding on that, as a formula for any future requests.
“We should keep in mind this could be precedent setting,” she noted. “That doesn’t make me a ‘no,’ I’m very supportive, I just want to know how to handle it the next time we’re asked.”
Chairman Rod Sullivan reiterated the next budget cycle will not begin until late next fall, “So I hesitate to make any commitments now.”
“It’s just important to put it before you, gauge your interest, and if we need to come back and remind you in November, that’s fine,” said Morris.
Sullivan, noting the interest from the board, said the discussion will be continued later in the year.
In the meantime, the department is still actively seeking donations with more information available at https://www.solonfirehouse.com/ and has launched an online portal at https://venmo.com/SolonFirehouse.