By Rich Pollack
Highland Beach commissioners, faced with a 10.3% increase in how much they’re charged for fire service from Delray Beach, are questioning why they are being asked to pay for four additional firefighter/paramedics to be assigned to the station in town.
Under a 20-year agreement signed in 2016, Highland Beach pays for the salaries of 22.5 firefighter/paramedics assigned to the station next to Town Hall — a staffing level that includes two personnel on the one rescue vehicle operating out of the station.
In its latest projection of costs to Highland Beach, however, Delray for fiscal 2021 included the addition of four firefighter/paramedics, helping to push the cost from $4.43 million to $4.89 million, an increase of about $458,000.
The increase sent shock waves through Highland Beach residents who for years have contended the fire contract was unfair because there was little town input into how much it is being charged.
“We can’t afford this, we don’t have flexibility,” Commissioner Evalyn David said after hearing of plans to add four personnel. “They may not have taken into account that we don’t want this or need it.”
While the request to add staff took the town by surprise, Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey said his department has been telling Highland Beach officials this would be coming for the last three years.
Delray Fire Rescue administrators say that the city already has three paramedics assigned to each rescue truck at all of the stations it operates, with the exception of Highland Beach.
Currently all medical calls in Highland Beach require that a rescue wagon and the ladder truck assigned respond so that a paramedic/firefighter is available should one be needed to assist while a patient is being treated and taken to a hospital.
With a third person on the rescue wagon, the ladder truck would not be needed and could be available to respond to a simultaneous call, Tomey said.
Helping to cover the cost of the additional staffing — at least for three years — is a Safer Grant that Delray received from the Department of Homeland Security to pay for eight additional firefighter/paramedics. Four would be going to the Highland Beach station.
During the first two years, the grant would cover about 75% of the cost but only about 35% of the cost the following year. After that the communities would have to cover the full cost.
That will add to Delray’s already projected operational costs, which increased even more in June when Delray commissioners voted to approve the first contract for four department battalion and three division chiefs.
The contract with the chiefs includes a special stipend of $82 an hour for working special events such as parades or festivals outside normal hours. The cost to taxpayers was estimated to be $189,000 annually.
Highland Beach leaders say they too are facing financial challenges and having to pay for four additional personnel will create a hardship for the town both in the short term and the long run.
Town officials said they were given no opportunity to discuss the addition of four personnel prior to being given the cost estimate for the upcoming year.
“We are customers of Delray Beach Fire Rescue and the Delray Beach commission and we were not brought into the discussion,” said Highland Beach Mayor Doug Hillman. “This is not treating us as a partner or a customer.”
The mayor said he and other commissioners also were concerned about what they were told would happen if Highland Beach didn’t agree to pay for the additional four staff members.
“We were informed that if we didn’t accept this, the Delray Beach commission would cancel the contract,” he said. “Is this the proper way to treat a customer?”
In an unusual move, the Highland Beach commission held off on voting to reject Delray Beach’s request to amend the contract to include the additional staffing. Instead they dispatched Vice Mayor Greg Babij to meet with three Delray Beach commissioners who voted for the Safer Grant and share with them why voiding the contract would not be in Delray Beach’s best interest.
Highland Beach commissioners and residents have repeatedly pointed out that the vehicles and crew at the station in town often respond to calls in Delray Beach. From May of last year to May of this year, the staff at the station responded to about 750 calls in Highland Beach and about 600 calls in Delray.
Hillman said that should Delray cancel the contract, it would lose the staff to respond to those calls outside of the town and it would lose about $5 million a year in revenue from Highland Beach.
Tomey agrees that the relationship between the two communities is mutually beneficial and pointed out that since Highland Beach is considered part of Delray’s service area, it has access to all of Delray Fire Rescue resources.
“When Highland Beach residents dial 911 and the crew at Station 116 is dispatched to a call, the town’s residents are getting access to more than they may realize and more than they pay for,” he said. “From backup vehicles such as ladder, rescue and special operations trucks to extra personnel such as battalion chiefs, a medical director, fire investigators, human resources, purchasing and logistics specialists, they have the support of the entire department.”
Highland Beach officials said they want to continue the contract with Delray but need more input in how their bill is determined.
“We would like to maintain our partnership with Delray Beach,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said. “One way to do that is take a serious look at the financial elements of the contract and improve collaboration.”