Commission likes partnership but wants to cut costs
By Rich Pollack
After listening to Delray Beach’s fire chief spell out a lengthy list of benefits Highland Beach receives under its fire-rescue contract and warning that canceling the agreement could be detrimental to residents, most town leaders agreed keeping Delray is the preference — if only it were affordable.
With the current price tag hovering above $5 million a year and projected to reach north of $6.5 million by 2027, however, town leaders say the agreement is unsustainable and are strongly considering the possibility of starting a town-operated fire- rescue department.
“It appears we’re looking at three strategies,” Mayor Doug Hillman said. “First in my opinion would be to stay right where we are, but it’s a finance issue.”
During a presentation in March, Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey reminded town commissioners that their residents are receiving what he called the “gold standard” of care from his department under a 10-year contract extension that expires in 2026. The fire-rescue partnership between the municipalities dates to 1993.
“For Delray Beach firefighters there is no line separating Delray Beach and Highland Beach and I urge you, I actually beg you, do not create one,” he said. “Doing so would be to the detriment of your residents and at their expense. You’re asking them to accept a lower standard of care and service.
“I know it’s cliché but as fire chief for the residents of Highland Beach, that worries me greatly to the point where it keeps me up at night.”
Hillman and other commissioners agree that the service the town receives is top- notch but they are still seriously investigating other options.
One would be for the town to create its own public safety department, with the possibility of a chief overseeing both the police department and a fire-rescue department operating out of the station next to Town Hall.
A third option, listed in a consultant’s report, would be to use a hybrid solution with the town contracting out emergency medical service, but that appears to be a long shot due to stringent restrictions and regulations established by Palm Beach County officials.
“The bombshell is what I heard about a county ordinance that only government agencies can respond to 911 calls,” Commissioner John Shoemaker said.
Town Manager Marshall Labadie clarified that there don’t seem to be actual legal restrictions preventing the town from outsourcing rescue services but there are other obstacles.
“It appears the practicality of implementing it may not be feasible,” he said.
Under the contract between the two municipalities, Delray Beach provides service to Highland Beach by staffing the station there with the town covering the cost of 22.5 firefighters and paramedics. The agreement also provides Highland Beach with all the resources of the Delray Beach department, from backup apparatus to maintenance and fire inspection services, since Delray considers Highland Beach to be part of its overall service area.
As it moves forward, the town appears to be focused on dissecting the current contract and looking for areas that could be adjusted should both sides agree to renegotiate.
“Of course we’d still like to work something out with our partners,” Hillman said.
Delray Beach might also see benefits in retaining an agreement with the smaller coastal community.
If Highland Beach started its own station, Delray Beach would lose the $5 million to $6 million in annual revenue and the ability to use the apparatus and staff working out of the town’s station for calls within its city limits.
The study from Matrix Consulting showed that the station, Station 116, responded to calls within Highland Beach an average of 678 times per year and responded to calls outside of the town 677 times per year.
Apparatus from Delray Beach responded into the town about 139 times per year.
Asked by Shoemaker if Delray Beach would provide mutual aid to Highland Beach if the town had its own fire department, Tomey said that is uncertain.
“We would have no obligation to provide mutual aid to the town,” he said, adding that other neighboring fire departments might feel the same way. “You would have to be able to reciprocate what we provide you.”
The Matrix report showed that after startup costs of about $4 million over three years, Highland Beach would be able to operate its own station for about $2 million less than what it would pay Delray — in part by having four fewer people assigned to the station than are there now.
Tomey, however, listed a series of equipment and operational costs not included in the consultant’s estimates, ranging from costs of training and testing to costs of cardiac monitors and extrication equipment.
Moving forward, Highland Beach commissioners will look at issues such as whether Delray Beach has billed the town correctly in the past, whether the city had not met parts of the contract, and whether it had returned the proper amount of medical transport fees to the town.
In addition, Shoemaker will work with Matrix to identify what items should be included should a new contract be negotiated.
“We very much look forward to sitting down with your folks and working something out,” Hillman said.
While Tomey did not address revisiting the contract, he did say that he would meet individually with the five Delray Beach city commissioners to discuss the Highland Beach agreement.