By Rich Pollack
Town leaders will be focused this month on determining how the community receives fire and emergency medical services, eventually deciding if Highland Beach should continue contracting with Delray Beach, start its own department or consider a hybrid model using a private provider.
The town also will consider creating a public safety department with its police officers certified as firefighters so they would be available to serve as backup in a major fire.
Those options were presented to Highland Beach in a draft report it received late last month from Matrix Consulting Group, which was commissioned to take a hard look at the services the town receives from Delray Beach and evaluate feasible alternatives.
Should town commissioners choose to depart from the status quo and separate from Delray Beach, the impact will be felt both in the small town and its much larger neighbor.
At issue, according to Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie, is the cost of the service provided by Delray Beach, which staffs a fire truck and rescue vehicle working out of a station in town.
“Everyone agrees they do a superb job, but at what cost?” he said.
The town budgeted $4.8 million to pay Delray Beach for fire rescue service this fiscal year, and the report from Matrix projects that number could increase to $6.5 million by 2027.
If Highland Beach chose not to renew its contract with Delray Beach, the city would lose those millions of dollars in revenue and would lose use of the station the town owns.
The Matrix report found that in 2019, personnel working out of the Highland Beach station responded to about 650 calls outside town, with 70% being for emergency medical services.
During the same year, the crew at the Highland Beach station responded to 704 calls for service within the town, again with the vast majority being medical calls, according to the report.
In addition to presenting information about the cost of starting a municipal fire department, the report outlines possible hybrid models. One model would include hiring a private company to provide fire and medical services, with another requiring the town to create a municipal fire department and outsource emergency medical services.
Another option presented in the report would have the town contract out emergency medical services and have the police and municipal fire departments combined into a public safety department.
Training police officers as firefighters, the report says, would provide additional personnel in the event of a large fire.
While the Matrix report shows that the operational cost of most of the alternatives would be lower than the cost of staying with Delray Beach by 2027, it also points out that implementation would include significant start-up costs for at least the first three years.
Start-up costs over that time period are projected to range anywhere between about $2 million for a public safety department and as much as $3 million for a stand-alone Highland Beach fire rescue department, according to the Matrix study.
Although the study provided an analysis of alternatives, it did not include a recommendation on what options might be best for the town.
However, the report did recommend that should the town stay with Delray Beach, contract terms should be modified to reflect more accurate personnel costs and include performance benchmarks that can be accurately measured.
The Town Commission plans to have a special meeting on March 11 to hear a presentation from the consultant, discuss the report and start a process that could take two or three months before a decision is made.