By Tim Pallesen
Delray Beach will keep its own fire-rescue department after Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue failed to assure a long-term savings for city taxpayers.
A county takeover was projected to have saved $2.1 million the first year. But three of five city commissioners voiced concerns after their financial director predicted that a county contract was likely to be more costly in the future.
“There’s no certainty that the initial savings would not be offset by future costs,” Mayor Cary Glickstein said. “I’m not interested in relinquishing control based on a one-year contract proposal.”
“There’s not enough on the table to say this is good,” Commissioner Shelly Petrolia agreed.
Glickstein had asked the county for a price quote last September at the request of the labor union representing city firefighters and paramedics, who face possible cuts in their city pension benefits.
City fire-rescue workers would have become county employees under the proposal. The city would have kept its five existing fire stations.
“We would be honored to provide excellent service to you,” County Fire-Rescue Deputy Chief Mark Anderson said in presenting the county proposal at a June 10 workshop.
But Commissioner Jordana Jarjura joined Glickstein and Petrolia to say long-term costs were unknown.
They formed a majority to dismiss the idea even though Commissioner Al Jacquet said he wanted to explore it further. Commissioner Adam Frankel called the county offer “attractive for many reasons.”
The majority agreed with the city’s chief financial officer, Jack Warner, who recommended it would be best to “strengthen and improve” the existing city fire department that began in 1923.
Fire Chief Danielle Connor said 14 new firefighters need to be hired at a cost of $1.2 million. She warned that 21 of the city’s fire-rescue employees are searching for jobs elsewhere.
“We’re severely short-staffed,” city paramedic Ken Thompson told commissioners.
Delray’s decision to keep and improve city fire-rescue services should ease concern in Highland Beach, which paid $3 million to Delray this year for services. The two cities have a contract until 2017.
Delray also collects $389,536 annually to answer fire-rescue calls in Gulf Stream, where officials are worrying about dwindling budget reserves from a year of fighting lawsuits and appreciate the stability the city’s decision brings.
“The decision not to go with the county was done sensibly and without any rancor or emotion. It was a very professional discussion, and I commend Delray,” Vice Mayor Robert Ganger said. “We’re going to have to be very vigilant, however, as we go into discussions on the extension of our own contract, which expires in five years.”
In Highland Beach, town officials say they have no short-term plans to change fire service providers but will continue exploring the feasibility of contracting with others — including Boca Raton Fire-Rescue and Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue — in the long term.
“We’re continuing to look at several different alternatives,” Town Manager Kathleen Weiser said.
The town is also putting on hold plans to switch its 911 emergency dispatch services to Delray Beach while it investigates future fire service options. Currently, 911 calls from Highland Beach are handled by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office, which dispatches Highland Beach police officers but transfers medical and fire calls to Delray Beach Fire-Rescue.
Dan Moffett and Rich Pollack contributed to this story.