The first of two accidents involving Portland's three-year-old fireboat cost nearly twice as much as previously reported by the city, according to documents acquired via a Freedom of Access Act request.
By Randy Billings
PORTLAND – The first of two accidents involving Portland's three-year-old fireboat cost nearly twice as much as previously reported by the city, according to documents provided this week in response to a Freedom of Access Act request.
The city said that repairs from the accident in November 2009 cost about $90,000, but invoices and a work order released by the city add up to about $170,000.
City officials have so far not explained the discrepancy.
The accident occurred while the fireboat's crew was responding to an emergency at Jewel Island.
Other documents released this week shed new light on the boat's second accident, in October of 2011.
The boat hit a submerged object while carrying two firefighters and a dozen friends and family members of one of them on a trip around Portland Harbor.
Invoices confirm the city's reports that those repairs cost about $54,000.
This week, the city released its initial accident report to the Coast Guard, showing that the fireboat was traveling at 14 knots two hours before low tide when it left a navigation channel and entered an area with known hazards, including submerged ledges and a shipwreck.
The city also provided new policies about the use of the fireboat, including one that says any transportation of civilians in non-emergency situations is subject to approval by the fire chief.
Despite the disclosures this week, the city has not released the results of its internal investigation into the second accident. That report was expected to be made public, and could answer additional questions.
City officials say the document must remain private as a personnel matter.
City officials, including City Manager Mark Rees and Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, have expressed a desire to put the incident behind the city.
But City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who chairs the council's Public Safety, Health and Human Services Committee, said city officials should have released details sooner.
"You don't play the reluctant witness" if you want to restore public trust and confidence, Suslovic said.
Suslovic said he would like to know why the crew was distracted from safely navigating the city's $3.2 million fireboat, but conceded that the city is likely prohibited from releasing that information.
The documents provided to the Portland Press Herald raise new questions about the cost of the accident on Nov. 7, 2009.
In service for only two months, the City of Portland IV hit a rock in Whitehead Passage. At the time, Portland firefighters, the Coast Guard and the Maine Marine Patrol were working to rescue a couple off Jewel Island, after an elderly duck hunter fell in the water.
The impact of that accident pushed the boat's rudder into the hull, punching a hole slightly larger than a softball, and cut two crescents into one of the propeller blades. The supports that hold the propeller to the hull ripped free.
The city originally said the repairs cost $90,000. But the Press Herald reviewed nearly 30 invoices and a purchase order, dated Nov. 9, 2009 to April 8, 2010, involving 11 companies that provided parts or service for the fireboat repairs.
The paper found that the actual cost was about $173,000 -- nearly twice the amount disclosed by the city.
The Press Herald first asked the city to review the figures and explain the discrepancy on Tuesday.
Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said Tuesday that she was hampered by the turnover of personnel in the fire department. "The people with firsthand accounts aren't here anymore, which makes it difficult," she said.
City Manager Mark Rees said in an email Wednesday that the city staff would not have a response until the end of the week because of its regular workload.
Rees was hired as city manager in 2011, two years after the first fireboat accident.
Suslovic said he was never notified that the costs were higher than first reported.
City Councilor John Anton, who chairs the council's Finance Committee, said Wednesday that he did not remember what councilors were told about the final cost.
However, he said he is concerned that the fireboat has been in two accidents since it was purchased in 2009 and the city should continue its efforts to be transparent to the public.
Mayor Michael Brennan did not return a call for comment Wednesday.
The Press Herald also tallied invoices stemming from the accident on Oct. 15, 2011. Those totaled about $56,000, which is in line with the $54,000 reported by the city.
The city had to pay a $25,000 deductible for each of the two accidents, with insurance covering the rest. City officials could not say whether Portland's insurance rates have been affected by the accidents.
Documents provided by the city also revealed changes in city policies regarding the use of the fireboat for non-emergency purposes. The new policies were approved by Rees on Nov. 13.
One says use of the fireboat for "non-public safety purposes" by city employees and contractors shall be approved by the fire chief, who will notify the city manager.
A separate new policy says anyone "not affiliated with the city through employment or through contracted services shall not be permitted to ride" on the fireboat without the fire chief's approval.
The new policies differ from one imposed by Rees soon after it was revealed that 12 civilians were on board at the time of the accident in 2011.
At the time, Rees required all non-emergency use of the fireboat to be approved in advance by the city manager.
Two firefighters were suspended without pay for the accident, but they were not punished for having civilians on board because the city didn't have a policy against it. An arbitrator reduced the punishments and ordered the city to pay more than $1,100 in lost wages to the employees.
Rees said in an email Tuesday that the new policy no longer bypasses the fire chief in decisions about when to allow civilians on the fireboat.
"Under this new process, both the fire chief and me, as city manager, have the opportunity to weigh in on its use," he wrote.
Suslovic, however, said he believes the city manager should be the only one authorized to grant permission for non-emergency use.
"I'm just concerned about openness and oversight," he said.
The new policies make clear that the fireboat crew must report all accidents in accordance with Coast Guard rules. The crew did not immediately report the accident to the Coast Guard.
Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: