U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson stopped Thursday to talk with local officials about funding opportunities for a new $4.5 million firehouse for the Belmont Volunteer Fire Department.
Around a dozen officials including Ohio Rep. Don Jones, R-Freeport, Belmont County Commissioners Jerry Echemann and J.P. Dutton, Sheriff Dave Lucas and Emergency Management Agency Director Dave Ivan gathered with firefighters outside the fire station to welcome Johnson, R-Ohio. The fire department is hoping to secure grant funds to begin construction of a firehouse across the street from its current location.
Johnson met with the officials to discuss possible funding through the Congressional Directed Community Investment Program for the project. He said it is one of 15 projects in his district that made it through the initial evaluation process.
“Every member of the U.S. House can submit up to 15 candidate projects. Then, once it passes the initial evaluation, and those are really strict criteria — there has to be local support, local matching dollars, there has to be local support in terms of documented evidence that the community really needs this and of course safety and security,” he said
“A fire department really ranks up there pretty high when you start talking about the needs of a community, so I’m cautiously optimistic.”
The next step is for the appropriators to look over the application and compare it to hundreds of other projects in the country that may also apply for funding. Johnson said he feels the firhouse is a strong project and is hopeful it will receive funding.
“All 435 members of the House, all of those projects across the country. … I’ll be shocked if we don’t get a number of our projects approved, and I think this one will compete very well. We’ll see what’s going to happen,” he said.
Johnson said the project would be beneficial for the community.
“In rural America you’ve got a lot of little communities like this that live 35-40 miles, an hour, from the closest hospital, so EMS service, fire service, life-saving service is vitally important to a community,” he said, adding that fire departments like the one in Belmont are the “life blood” of a community. “… It makes these volunteer fire departments that much more important.”
Johnson said local support is a crucial component for securing the funds, and the Belmont VFD has that, as evidenced by the local officials who came out during the visit.
“You’ve got to have local support, and if the county commissioners and the township trustees, the city councils, the village councils, however those communities are organized differently throughout Appalachia, if you don’t have local officials behind the project then it never gets off the ground,” he said.
Ed Tacosik, a member of the Belmont VFD, said they wanted to have an informational meeting with Johson regarding the project application and how important the project would be for the area.
“Today was a day for him to come out and see firsthand exactly what kind of condition the building was in and get a little more in-depth explanation as to the needs for the community and to try to continue to provide fire and EMS service to the citizens of the area,” Tacosik said.
The main structure of the current firehouse was built in the late 1800s, department officials said. Tacosik said although they have added on to it over the last 40-50 years, there is no longer room for expansion and the facility has structural issues.
“A lot of it’s coming down, it’s sinking, the foundation is cracking. We’ve got water leaks and everything, and we can’t do anything else with it. With the volunteers gone basically, we just feel the need to do something like this, try to make a big enough situation to where hopefully some of the smaller communities and the township personnel can get together and decide that forming a district, pooling all the money and providing 24-7 coverage versus the 30-minute wait at 3 o’clock in the morning. We just don’t have the volunteers available to us anymore,” he said, adding that members are trying to ensure residents receive the proper service that they deserve.
He said they want to construct the new facility to potentially create a district firehouse, if it is agreeable to others in the area and they feel it is needed.
Tacosik said the project is “shovel ready.” All the plans for the new firehouse are drawn up and the location, which includes around 3 acres of land, is secured.
“Theoretically, if we were to be approved in three months and the money came down in six months, we’re ready to dig. We’re all ready to go,” he said.
Tacosik said he is grateful to Johnson for his assistance with the funding opportunity.
Fire Chief Bob Mills was unable to attend the meeting as he was visiting his son, who just re-enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, in Florida. Johnson took a minute to speak to him over the phone prior to leaving.