City Hall: Commissioners Leonard, Saltzman and Fritz Brawl over Fire Vehicles

A seemingly mundane discussion today at Portland City Hall about bonds related to a $72.4 million fire-equipment measure morphed into a verbal tussle over the planned purchase of four emergency vehicles.

Those four emergency vehicles were part of the ballot measure that city voters narrowly approved last year to beef up emergency-response infrastructure in Portland. But, as Commissioners Amanda Fritz and Dan Saltzman noted this morning, there's no plan yet in place for how the city would staff those vehicles, which will respond to minor medical emergencies not fires.

Today's emergency ordinance would have allowed city officials to issue up to $40 million in bonds to buy emergency equipment and the four vehicles as part of the $72.4 million Portland Fire & Rescue upgrade.

But Fritz and Saltzman wanted to know how much sense it made to buy new vehicles without first establishing a funding plan for deploying those vehicles. Fritz started her line of questioning by saying the city currently has two emergency vehicles similar to the four the city wants to buy. One of those vehicles is not in service because of staffing issues, she said.

"If we purchase them right now, we don't have the bodies to go in them," Fire Chief John Klum acknowledged.

Commissioner Randy Leonard appeared irritated by Fritz and Saltzman's questions. (He at one point noted, quite correctly, that the conversation was happening in open session in front of reporters!) But his objections mostly stemmed from the fact Leonard considered the staffing question to be a matter of collective bargaining with the firefighters union, meaning it shouldn't be discussed publicly. "This is not Wisconsin," Leonard interjected at one point.

Commissioner Nick Fish, who was on vacation last week, asked if the emergency clause could be removed from the ordinance so that a vote could be postponed a week. Leonard agreed to that change, but he may not have had a choice. Emergency ordinances require unanimous votes. "We're not going to resolve this today," Fish said. (Mayor Sam Adams was not at today's session because he is in Germany on city business.)

One of the items commissioners will discuss between this week and next is how many city employees would need to be assigned to the new vehicles. Saltzman seemed to think a single employee could respond to certain medical emergencies. Leonard said he thought two people would be more appropriate. He said a number of times this morning that certain neighborhoods in Portland's "urban environment" weren't safe for solitary city employees.

"This is a little frustrating," Leonard said of this morning's conversation.

"It's frustrating for me, too," Saltzman said.

Fritz's main point? "I think it's premature to buy the trucks if we don't know how we're going to staff them," she said.