By Rich Pollack
After a month of contentious comments, with each side taking offense by what was said by those on the other side of the Intracoastal Waterway, Delray Beach and Highland Beach may be going back to the negotiating table in an attempt to hammer out a mutually agreeable fire-rescue service agreement.
In a reversal of tone from where it was just a month ago, Delray Beach City Commissioners agreed at its March 1 meeting to try to restart negotiations with Highland Beach.
“Providing we can reach an agreement where the city is made whole financially, I suggest we give it another try,” Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein said.
The reception Delray Beach’s outstretched hand receives, however, may not be a warm one.
Highland Beach town commissioners are still reeling over what they say is the heavy-handed way their larger neighbor handled the negotiations.
Delray Beach currently provides fire and rescue services to Highland Beach, staffing a rescue wagon and a ladder truck at a fire station owned by Highland Beach.
The 15-year agreement between the two municipalities expires at the end of September 2017.
Negotiations had been ongoing for months and Highland Beach had agreed to a new contract. Last month, however, in a move that surprised the smaller town’s leaders, Delray Beach commissioners rejected the proposed new agreement unless a 20 percent administrative fee was included on top of a $3.3 million annual charge.
That infuriated several Highland Beach commissioners, who called the move immoral and instructed their staff to begin looking at alternative fire-service options. They ranged from contracting with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue to starting a town fire department.
The abrupt change of course for the Delray Beach City Commission at its March 1 meeting may have been sparked by information showing the rescue wagon, owned by Highland Beach and staffed by Delray Beach personnel for which Highland Beach pays, responds to about 35 calls per month in nearby areas of Delray Beach.
“The notion that Highland Beach gets more out of this than we do is not factually accurate,” Glickstein said.
Other commissioners, concerned that response times to residents living east of the Intracoastal Waterway would be longer if the city no longer served Highland Beach, agreed with Glickstein.
They rejected a recommendation by City Manager Don Cooper to sever fire-service ties with the smaller community. In his recommendation, Cooper had said he thought the priority needed to be on improving the services Delray Beach provides to its own residents.
Glickstein and the other commissioners, however, said they see a benefit to their residents in continuing the Highland Beach contract.
“We’re neighboring communities and we need to work together,” Glickstein said. “There’s a history and a bigger picture here that none of us had the benefit of hearing about. This is a relationship worth saving”
Following Delray Beach’s decision to invite them back to negotiations, Highland Beach officials said they are still continuing to explore options and renewing negotiations with Delray Beach was one more option to consider.
“We’ve had a long-standing relationship with Delray Beach and our residents are happy with the service and with the personnel,” Town Manager Beverly Brown said. “I sure hope we can work something out.”
Brown thinks if the Highland Beach Commission agrees to go back to the table to negotiate, things could go better this time around because both groups are better informed.
“We both know more about costs and revenues, and about response times and service areas than we did before,” she said.
Highland Beach Commissioner Lou Stern said he is open to once again consider receiving fire rescue service from Delray Beach.
“It would be a shame if our relationship came to end on bad feelings,” he said. “We should keep an open mind.” Ú
By Rich Pollack