“I’m going to go faint now,” Lancaster Township Fire Department Chief Steve Roy joked at the conclusion of Wednesday’s county commissioners’ meeting.
Moments earlier, the commissioners had unanimously approved awarding Roy’s department $500,000 in federal Covid-19 relief funds — a “last-in” increment of funding needed to begin construction of a new fire station at 1275 Millersville Pike.
Roy had come to the commissioners seeking $680,000. The commissioners, however, had balked at providing that much in American Rescue Plan Act funds, or ARPA.
Roy said the department can’t proceed without the full amount: It’s needed to fulfill the requirements for a $2.4 million low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provides funding for rural fire departments. The department has tapped out every other funding source it has available, he said.
To overcome the commissioners’ reservations about the amount, he offered to return some of the money at the end of the project. There’s a 10% surplus for contingencies built into the budget, and there’s a good chance the department could give back $100,000 to $200,000, he said. The county could then award it afresh, in effect having only loaned it.
“That’s a whole different agreement,” Commissioner Josh Parsons objected. It raises serious questions about precedent, transparency and compliance with ARPA, and isn’t something that should be decided on the fly.
He and his fellow commissioners agreed to table the matter until July 25, giving the county and the department time to work through the ramifications of such an arrangement, and for the department to make one last effort to find other funding and reduce its request.
The delay yielded unexpected results. Just as the meeting was coming to an end, Roy announced he had received word that if the commissioners would provide an ARPA grant of $500,000, Lancaster Township would chip in the remaining $180,000.
That was enough to earn all three commissioners’ support. Within two minutes, the resolution appropriating the $500,000 was introduced and passed.
The fire station will replace two outdated facilities on the township’s west side — holdovers from the department’s origin in the merger of the Bausman and Wheatland departments in 1991 — with a single modern one in a central location.
It was originally budgeted at $3.7 million but ballooned to $5.1 million due to the pandemic and supply-chain issues. That’s despite the department trimming about $450,000 in project costs by eliminating some of the planned features of the new station, including a second-floor lounge.
The building has been designed with the future of firefighting in mind, Roy said, to give the township a station that can serve it for half a century or more.
Besides its new commitment, Lancaster Township has provided significant support, he said: It assisted with the land lease and the development and approval process and is buying the two legacy fire stations.
The commissioners have emphasized that they are reluctant to give ARPA dollars to projects that mostly serve a single municipality. The fire station is an exception in large part because it will serve the new county prison, which is slated to go on a Lancaster County property just south of Lancaster city.
Roy said once financing is in place, the department can finalize its contracts within weeks. Construction is projected to take about a year.