By Rich Pollack
Faced with another year of rising costs for fire rescue service from Delray Beach, Highland Beach is once again exploring alternatives to the multimillion-dollar annual contract with the neighboring city, including starting its own fire department.
During an August meeting, town commissioners agreed to pay $40,000 to have California-based Matrix Consulting Group look into the feasibility of Highland Beach providing its own fire department or having a hybrid system where it receives some services from a private provider.
“What we’re looking for is an appropriately funded fire-rescue response,” Town Manager Marshall Labadie said. “The costs should be proportional to the services provided.”
Since signing a new 10-year contract with Delray Beach for fire service in 2016, Highland Beach officials have raised concern about continued escalating costs that they fear could be unsustainable.
During fiscal 2019, for example, costs for service jumped 8.6% to $4.26 million. During fiscal 2020 costs are expected to increase by about 5% to $4.47 million. And for the upcoming fiscal 2021, costs are expected to jump between 5% and 7% to $4.78 million.
Following a presentation by Robert Finn, a lead analyst for Matrix Consulting, commissioners agreed that looking at alternatives to fire service from Delray was a necessary step.
“We have no choice,” said Mayor Doug Hillman. “We’re obligated to our residents to do what’s best for our town.”
During a subsequent presentation to the commission, Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey said he welcomed the consultant study commissioned by Highland Beach.
“We’re happy to see you are hiring a consultant,” Tomey said. “We feel we are the best force for you and believe the consultant will point that out.”
Tomey noted that the town is considered part of Delray Beach’s service area and as such receives a long list of services both direct and indirect — ranging from backup vehicles in case of a major fire to apparatus repair.
Hillman, in responding to the fire chief, made it clear that Highland Beach is pleased with the quality of services it receives from Delray.
“The service we get is top-notch,” he said. “This is purely a financial situation. It’s nothing more than dollars and cents.”
Currently, Delray Beach provides all fire/rescue services in Highland Beach and staffing for the town-owned fire station, with the town paying for the cost of 22.5 firefighter/paramedics and some administrative services.
Delray Beach had originally requested that Highland Beach amend the contract to add four more personnel, with part of the cost for the first three years being covered by a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In all, the grant would have covered the partial cost of eight Delray Beach firefighters over three years — four assigned to Highland Beach — with the portion paid by Delray Beach and Highland Beach increasing each year.
Highland Beach rejected the amendment and Delray Beach appealed to FEMA, asking for a hardship case because of the coronavirus pandemic. FEMA is now allowing Delray Beach to fill only three of the eight positions for the first year, a reduction of $350,000 to the city’s expense, but will require the city to fill all eight positions — including the four in Highland Beach — the following year.
In addition to giving Highland Beach a detailed plan for forming its own fire department — and listing the expected cost — Matrix will review the services provided by Delray Beach over the last three years.
The audit will look at the costs and examine Delray Beach performance compared to the requirements in the agreement with the town.
“The commission wants to be sure we are being charged correctly pursuant to the contract,” Labadie said.
Matrix, which several years ago was hired to explore the possibility of creating a barrier island fire department in South County, expects to have a study completed in three or four months. The barrier island fire department concept was dismissed as too costly.
Labadie believes the findings of the new report could help the town decide how best to proceed and that could include finding a way to continue the relationship with Delray.
“We’re hopeful that the study will bring the parties together and we’ll come up with an amicable solution for a long-term partnership,” Labadie said. Ú