Along the Coast: Barrier island fire district plan gaining steam

Related stories: Highland Beach and Delray Beach may resume talks about fire service | Transport fee revenue questioned in fire-rescue contract | Fire Rescue chief announces plans to retire in May

By Dan Moffett

    When Gulf Stream Town Manager Bill Thrasher started studying the idea of bringing six barrier island towns together to provide their own fire-rescue services last year, he thought there was “no better than a 20 percent chance” anything would come of it.
    Thrasher believes that number has improved dramatically in recent weeks, however. “I think it’s gone up to 50 percent,” he says now.
    You can attribute the change to an unlikely source: Delray Beach, which currently provides services to Gulf Stream and Highland Beach.
    In February, Delray Beach city commissioners rejected a tentative fire-rescue agreement with Highland Beach and added a 20 percent administrative fee to the proposed contract, effectively increasing the town’s bill by $660,000 a year.
    “We thought we had an agreement with them in December,” Town Manager Beverly Brown said. “Then we find out that they want to charge us another 20 percent. It was a surprise.”
    Delray Beach’s abrupt shift gave the six coastal communities the living example of how dependent they are on other governments for essential services and how shifting political winds can change the game at any time.
    The growing worry along the barrier islands is that the providers from the mainland — Delray Beach, Boynton Beach and Palm Beach County — will choose to balance their budgets by slapping fee increases on the affluent coastal communities.
    “It’s almost reverse discrimination against wealthy people,” Thrasher said.
    Delray Beach’s reversal touched off a firestorm in Highland Beach. The town had pulled out of the exploratory group studying the fire district’s feasibility late last year, but rejoined soon after the contract agreement fell through. Then Highland Beach residents’ participation spiked in an online survey gathering opinions on the district idea.
    In fact, Matrix Consulting Group, which ran the survey, received more responses (96) from Highland Beach than anywhere else.
    Ocean Ridge was second with 84, followed by Gulf Stream (62), Briny Breezes (19), South Palm Beach (16) and Manalapan (3).
    Matrix said 69 percent of all the respondents said they were either very interested or extremely interested in the six towns uniting to provide their own fire-rescue services. Most respondents (62 percent) said they supported providing both fire and emergency medical services, and the idea of inter-local assistance and joint fire stations had high support at 74 percent and 63 percent, respectively.
    Perhaps most significant, a majority of respondents (55 percent) said they were willing to pay more to provide their own protection and of those 88.4 percent preferred doing it through a barrier island district.
    Matrix, based in Keller, Texas, is expected to submit a report on the feasibility of the idea by the end of March.
    But just getting the cooperation needed from the mainland to complete the study has become a problem in itself.
    The consultants say Palm Beach County has balked at providing fire-rescue data for the communities it serves — Manalapan, South Palm Beach and the unincorporated “county pocket” between Briny Breezes and Gulf Stream — and telling the study group it wants an $800 fee to produce the numbers.
    Thrasher said the towns are willing to pay the money. But the county’s intransigence has added to momentum to support for a new district.
    “Once we get the data from the county, we will push hard to complete the study as rapidly as possible,” said Robert Finn, a Matrix consultant. “But this all hinges on the county.” Ú

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