The Erie Bureau of Fire puts a lot of miles and wear and tear on its fleet of fire trucks in responding to fires, emergency medical calls and other incidents in the city, Fire Chief Joe Walko said.
He credits the effort and skill of the bureau’s three fire mechanics in keeping the aging fleet running.
“Some of our rigs are getting close to 20 years old. With our climate, the weather, the salt, everything else, those fire trucks take a beating all the time,” Walko said. “Thank goodness we have our own mechanics. If not for those three guys at Marsh Street, we would really be hurting. We’re welding frames, everything else to keep them running.”
It’s vital work, given that replacing an old rig with a new one can cost in the neighborhood of $600,000 for an engine and more than $1 million for a ladder or tower, Walko said.
Some relief in finding the money to pay for a new rig could come through voters in the May 18 municipal primary.
One of four ballot questions voters will face asks them to decide whether to allow career or paid fire and emergency medical service departments like the Erie Bureau of Fire access to a low-interest loan program now open only to Pennsylvania’s volunteer fire and EMS agencies.
The Volunteer Loan Assistance Program, established by the general assembly in 1976, provides 2% fixed-rate loans for acquiring or rehabilitating apparatus, facilities and equipment.
Under the program, the maximum loan is the lesser of $350,000 or 50% of the total cost of a new ladder or tower truck; $250,000 or 50% for a new heavy-duty rescue or other apparatus; $125,000 or 50% for a new or used ambulance; $80,000 or 80% for the rehabilitation of a facility; and $25,000 or 50% for equipment, according to loan program information on the Pennsylvania Office of State Fire Commissioner website.
Among the entities in favor of opening the loan program include the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, which on its Facebook page called the referendum a “common sense issue” that would allow all fire departments in Pennsylvania, including the 22 career departments, to have access to low-interest loans to continue to provide essential services to their communities.
“It’s our tax money, so we should have the same advantage of getting low-interest loans to purchase equipment and to do our job,” said Walko, who is a member of the association.
Erie Mayor Joe Schember said if the loan program were open to Erie, he believes the city would be able to upgrade its fire department equipment.
“I know many of the engines that go out on fires are way past the length of time they should be in service,” he said.
Two of the bureau’s five front-line engines and its front-line tower were purchased in 2003 and a second tower was purchased in 1999. Some of its backup engines have been in service since the 1990s.
Schember said finding the money to buy new trucks can be difficult, and the low-interest loan program would give Erie a chief way to borrow.
Erie in 2020 purchased an engine for Engine Co. 13 for $618,514 that was paid for through an $11 million 2019 bond issue that paid for paving and capital improvements, according to city Finance Director Paul Lichtenwalter. The city also used $300,000 in state funding to help cover the cost.
In 2018, Erie bought and equipped a new rescue pumper for Engine Co. 6 for roughly $750,000 that was paid for through a $400,000 state grant and unappropriated and unanticipated revenue with the city’s capital fund budget, officials reported at the time.
New fire truck:The Erie Bureau of Fire’s search for a new fire truck, and a way to pay for one, appears to be over.
Other rig purchases, in 2003 and 2013, were done through bond issues.
Schember said it’s his understanding that the city has been paying 4.5% to 4.75% interest on the bonds. Getting loans through the state program would save Erie money, he said.
Erie wouldn’t be the only municipality to benefit if voters approve the referendum.
EmergyCare Executive Director Bill Hagerty said the EMS agency does not typically get loans for purchases. But if it were ever in need of a large loan, officials would certainly look at the low-interest loan program if it was available, he said.
In Titusville, which has a small paid fire department, City Manager Neil Fratus said access to the low-interest loan program could provide the city with another avenue for upgrading the department’s aging equipment.
Fratus said the city has used Community Development Block Grant funding for department equipment. But if the loan program were available, Titusville could utilize it and free up all of its CDBG money for other important projects, like addressing blighted properties and improving parks, he said.
Corry employs a combination fire department made up of paid city employees and volunteers. The city owns the trucks and fire stations and is thereby not currently eligible for the low-interest loan program, City Manager Jason Biondi said.
Taxpayers in communities like Corry carry the burden of paying for an emergency service that not only serves their community but surrounding areas that don’t have as heavy a tax burden, Biondi said. It would be positive for those municipalities to be able to tap into low-interest loans “just to help out with some of that strain,” he said.
Staff writer Kevin Flowers contributed to this article.