CLEARWATER — The City Council is balking at the idea of building a $13.3 million downtown fire station.
Go back to the drawing board, council members told their fire chief on Thursday night. They were unwilling to swallow a $5 million increase in the station's price tag.
The downtown fire station also serves as the Clearwater Fire Department's headquarters. The new station is to be built on a vacant lot on Court Street, replacing the current headquarters at Franklin Street and Garden Avenue.
The cost of the new station had long been budgeted at $8 million. Council members were floored this week to learn it had climbed to $13.3 million.
At Thursday night's council meeting, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson branded the proposed building as "a Taj Mahal" — a sure sign that the city's elected officials weren't going to go for it.
In a lengthy back-and-forth, council members questioned fire Chief Robert Weiss about virtually every aspect of the station's design, layout and functions — and especially about its projected construction costs of $300 per square foot.
For comparison's sake, Weiss pointed to a large Orlando fire headquarters built in 2009 for $350 per square foot. But Gibson kept pointing to a New Tampa fire station built in 2011 for $196 per square foot.
The fire chief defended the proposed station. He and engineering project manager Tara Kivett presented an itemized budget and detailed technical explanations for everything, including the need for a decontamination room and training space in the new building.
But the council was not convinced
"It was your understanding that we had $8 million for the project," Mayor George Cretekos told the chief. "And what I'm not understanding is, why we didn't tell the contractor, the architect, 'Hey, I've got $8 million, give me what I need for $8 million,' instead of saying, 'This is what I want, build it.' And this is why I'm just not comfortable doing this."
The chief said costs climbed as architects and engineers worked up a design for a "functional fire station" at that location.
"We didn't walk into the process saying that we have a blank checkbook," Weiss said. "We worked very hard around that $8 million, and the $8 million grew to $10 million, and the $10 grew to $11 and then to $12 million."
The new Fire Station 45 was envisioned as a three-story, 33,000-square-foot, LEED-certified "green" building that could withstand Category 5 hurricane winds. It would have four vehicle bays on the first floor, firefighter living quarters on the second floor, and offices on the third.
It would have a two-toned brick exterior and various architectural features — following Clearwater's downtown design guidelines, which call for new buildings to have some architectural character.
Council member Doreen Hock-DiPolito, who owns a construction business, suggested a compromise. She wondered if Weiss could come back with a simpler and cheaper version of the station, with a stripped-down design and less expensive building materials.
"If we were to ask for some time and go back and see if we can work the numbers a little harder so everybody can feel more comfortable, is that something that we could do?" she asked.
The council agreed to that.
The station's next design will cost somewhere between $8 million and $13 million.
Penny for Pinellas sales taxes will pay for the new downtown station, when it is eventually built.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. To write a letter to the editor, go to tampabay.com/letters.