The Coastal Star

Delray Beach: City opts to improve fire service rather than contract with county

By Jane Smith

    Delray Beach will focus on raising the level of service of its own fire-rescue department instead of consolidating with the county, city commissioners agreed Nov. 3.
    Just four residents spoke against the consolidation.
    “We are a smallish town,” said Susan Ruby, who lives in the Del Ida neighborhood. “Fire-rescue is an essential, vital service. I wouldn’t even know who to call in the county.”
    City Manager Don Cooper explained he had received a memo with only four sentences from the county on Oct. 21, not enough information to present to the commission. He wanted to concentrate on preparing for  the city’s goal-setting session set for Oct. 29.
He added that the county gave him a December deadline because it needed to know whether to add the county’s fire-rescue tax rate to the Delray Beach proposed tax bills.
    Cooper added that the December deadline didn’t give him enough time to receive and review a county contract.
    Four commissioners attended the Nov. 3 meeting. Commissioner Jordana Jarjura was absent.
    Two, including Mayor Cary Glickstein, thought the city manager had overstepped his bounds when he sent an email ending the discussions with the county.
    Commissioner Al Jacquet, the other commissioner who chided the city manager, asked City Attorney Noel Pfeffer what form of government Delray Beach has.
    Pfeffer said a strong city manager and weak mayor.
    “The burden should have been on our shoulders. It’s a tough decision to make, it should have been ours,” Jacquet said.
    The city has a commitment to public safety, “yet we allowed this issue to kick the can down the street,” Glickstein said.
    “We haven’t bought firetrucks, some of our fire stations are in abominal shape.”
    He directed the city manager to determine the level of service the Fire-Rescue Department needs to put it back into the top quartile in the county.
    Vice Mayor Shelly Petrolia and Commissioner Mitch Katz supported the city manager’s actions.
    Emails had zipped around the city the week before, most were against consolidation.
    Another round of prerecorded telephone calls went out on the afternoon of Nov. 2 to phones with a Delray Beach exchange.
The robocall message was not as threatening as the one in late September, but it pointed out that Jarjura and Glickstein had received support or campaign money from the county fire-fighters union. It urged recipients to call the commissioners and tell them not to consolidate.
    “I have received no phone calls and about 15 emails,” the mayor wrote in an email about 6 p.m. Nov. 2. “I received numerous contributions in the last two campaigns and one of the contributors was the fire-rescue union in both campaigns, whose members include the city’s fire-rescue department. I’m not sure how that’s relevant, particularly when I voted against the consolidation last year when it was initially proposed. 
    “In the end, I think the calls and emails were insulting to our residents in suggesting the people they elected would make such a decision that impacts 25 percent of the city’s budget based on $500 campaign contribution.”  
    Delray Beach’s 2015-2016 nearly $105 million budget allocates about $27 million for fire-rescue.
    Cooper, the city manager, had sent an email to city commissioners the last week in October saying the proposed agreement for consolidation would take further lengthy negotiations. As a result, he “stopped discussion on this issue and will focus our resources on … addressing the various issues within the fire department.”
    One day later at the city’s goal-setting session, he agreed to present the consolidation issue to the commission at the Nov. 3 meeting.
    Unlike the 2014 proposal, which used a full-cost methodology, this time the county wants the city to become part of its municipal service taxing unit where property owners pay a flat rate of $3.46 per $1,000 of taxable value.
    The county’s fire-rescue chief was preparing the county’s proposal, which would cover city fire-rescue employees who will have the option to join the Florida retiree system for their pensions, response times, staffing levels, equipment to buy or lease, actual fire stations and other items.
    The deal would last five years and the county would pay Delray Beach for its five fire stations, make needed upgrades, hire the city’s firefighters and pay for the equipment over that period.
    The city would retain the pension liability for its fire-rescue personnel who are currently working without a contract.
    Delray Beach provides fire-rescue services to the towns of Gulf Stream and Highland Beach.
    The Highland Beach contract expires next year and Gulf Stream’s in 2020. Both towns are exploring a barrier island fire-rescue service.
    Boynton Beach also is thinking about consolidating with the county.
    City commissioners directed City Manager Lori LaVerriere to survey residents with a questionnaire in the city utility bills.
She will seek further direction on the wording of the question and whether it should be just one vote per account. No date is set for that discussion.
    In addition, Boynton Beach provides fire rescue services to the towns of Briny Breezes and Ocean Ridge. Both towns are part of the exploration for a barrier island fire-rescue service.

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