Finance committee moves forward on fire station

  • Architectural drawings of the proposed new Highlands fire station.
    Architectural drawings of the proposed new Highlands fire station.

The Highlands Finance Committee had much to say during its Tuesday morning meeting about how to deal with life over the next few months and the impact of the coronavirus locally. 

The committee recommended allocating $35,000 to allow the construction manager to proceed with putting the fire station project out for bid. Town Manager Josh Ward said the cost of the new fire station had gone up from the original $4.5 million price tag. 

A similar facility built in Pickens County, South Carolina, priced out at about $6 million, Ward told the committee.

“The new price runs about $310 per square foot,” Ward said. “That’s up from the original $280 per square. Couple that with the $1.5 million we spent for the property, we’re looking at a total cost of about $7.5-to-$8 million to build out.”

Cost cutting options presented included building out the second floor, but leaving it as a shell. Ward said the savings offered there amounted to about $500,000 but the contractor warned it would cost significantly more to come back later and finish it. 

Ward and Finance Director Rebecca Shuler were reviewing 15-20 year loan packages between $7.5 million to $8 million for the facility.

A 15-year loan at $8 million would work, but would be tight,” Ward said. “I recommend a 20 year loan as it gives us some leeway.” 

The tax increase will generate about $1 million, Shuler told the committee.

Patterson asked if it would be feasible to house firefighters in a separate building on the property. 

Ward said the size of the building takes up most of the property. 

“Not doing it all at once will not result in any substantial savings,” Ward said. “It’s best to build it out all at once.”

The contract will go before the board for approval in its April meeting. 

The committee also discussed ways in which it could provide utility customers some relief during the COVID-19 crisis. Shuler said the town utility could offer free utilities during thistime, but is restricted by the class of customer, either commercial electric, or residential electric. 

“We need to show customers we are doing something,” Shuler said. 

One way the town could help would be to waive the convenience fee for those who pay online. The town would still be liable for the $2.75 fee, but hopefully this savings would motivate more of the town’s customers to pay their utility bills online and avoid trips to town hall. 

The cost to the town would run about $800 per month.

Late fees and service disconnections have been waived for the duration of the crisis. 

Bill forgiveness was discussed but not recommended as that cost would run between $700,000 and $800,000 if the town suspends utility bills during the COVID-19 crisis. 

“Most people are doing deferrals,” Shuler said. “Waving credit card fees for electronic payment, which would help eliminate walk-in traffic at town hall and eliminate the need to handle mail.” 

Also, Mayor Patrick Taylor said, paying electronically would eliminate town employees from having to handle cash. 

“Mostly residents who have lost their jobs calling and asking what we are doing to help,” Shuler said. “Suspending the convenience fee would tell our customers we’re doing something.”

The committee also recommended reducing visits to the post office from five days a week to two-to-three times a week. Monday and Thursdays.

In addition to waiving late fees and suspending disconnections, the committee recommended waiving convenience fees, and setting up deferred payment schedules with customers and extending the payback period from three months to six months during the crisis period.