Huntington's downtown fire station will close as the Huntington Fire Department adjusts to a reduction in the number of firefighters.
With the closing of the downtown station, the Condit Street fire station will be renovated so that firefighters and equipment can be divided between the Condit Street and Etna Avenue stations, Fire Chief Tim Albertson told members of the Huntington Common Council on Tuesday, Sept. 11.
The changes at the Condit Street station will mean the closure of the Neighborhood Recreation Center, which shares a building with the fire station.
The recreation center is operated by the Huntington Parks and Recreation Department, which also took a second hit as council members approved on first reading an ordinance abolishing an independent park board and placing the department directly under the supervision of the city's Board of Public Works and Safety.
The loss of the recreation center prompted Councilman Jim Long to cast the lone vote against appropriating the funds for the renovation of the Condit Street fire station.
"What I'm against is closing down the rec center," Long said.
Albertson told the council the changes are necessary as the number of firefighters is reduced from 41 to 35. The city currently has 37 firefighters, a reduction achieved through attrition. Several more firefighters are scheduled to retire next year, Albertson said, at which point the number of firefighters will stabilize at 35.
The reduction is the result of the 2010 layoff of six firefighters by then-Mayor Steve Updike as he struggled to balance the city budget. The firefighters were subsequently rehired with the help of a federal grant that paid salaries and benefits for two years; money from that grant ran out last month.
"We can't really effectively man three stations with 35 firefighters," Albertson said.
He plans to place a six-man staff at the Etna Avenue station and five firefighters at Condit Street.
Renovations at the Condit Street station, estimated to cost about $225,000, will include moving the firefighters' living quarters to space currently occupied by the recreation center, constructing a third equipment bay and remodeling existing space as administrative offices. Roof and other repairs are also included in the cost.
Construction is set to start as soon as possible this fall, Albertson said, with completion expected sometime in the first half of 2013. At that point, the downtown fire station will no longer be used by the fire department. A future use for the facility will be decided by city administrators.
"So we're going to do away with a rec center so some firemen have a place to sleep?" Long said. "What's the matter with stacking bunks up like they do in the Army?" Long asked.
Long noted that the original grant received by the city to build the Condit Street facility specifically included the construction of a recreation center, but City Attorney Mike Hartburg said a title search showed no restrictions on the use of the property.
Albertson said response times to most areas of the city would remain unchanged. The only change would occur in the downtown area, he said, where response times would change from "exceptional" to "very good."
"This will work, and it's far less expensive than a new fire station," Albertson said. "We can provide quality service."
Councilman Paul Pike said he appreciated the streamlining of the fire department, a concept that Mayor Brooks Fetters said was his goal in proposing that the park board be abolished.
Placing the parks department directly under the authority of the Board of Public Works and Safety, which oversees all other city departments, would "make government less cumbersome," Fetters said.
The proposal to disband the park board has been brought up periodically in the past, only to be met by protests from members of the park board that a separate board is necessary to qualify for some grants.
Park board member Marvin McNew repeated that concern as he addressed the council.
"There will be some grant opportunities we will not be able to obtain if we do not have a park board," McNew said.
Fetters said the number of grants the city would miss out on would be negligible.
"To be eligible for most, the city does not need to have a separate park board," Fetters said.
Councilman Charles Chapman said that while he believes that having a park board "is probably a positive thing," he is also in favor of streamlining government.
Council unanimously approved the proposal on first reading. The proposal must come before the council a second time, and will only become effective if it is approved on the second reading.
In other business, the council agreed to allow the city to act as the applicant for a grant from the Indiana Housing Redevelopment Authority.
A group of area organizations, headed by Pathfinder Services, is seeking the grant to pay for home repairs, sidewalk improvements, community support networks, transportation and other services that will allow older and disabled residents to remain in their homes as long as possible.
There would be no cost to the city, Pathfinder Services President John Niederman said.