By Rich Pollack
As Highland Beach leaders methodically move toward starting a town-operated fire department, they know that some skeptics believe they might be in over their heads.
Their message back: Don’t underestimate us.
“I think people will be surprised by where Highland Beach is now compared to where we were before,” says Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
In the past 21/2 years, he says, Highland Beach has shed any remnants of its reputation as a sleepy small town with simple solutions to simple problems.
Labadie, who almost three years ago came to Highland Beach from Michigan with an extensive knowledge of municipal management, has overseen the growth of the town’s governmental operation, which includes 48 full-time and several part-time employees.
Since his arrival, the town has brought its building department in-house, has added a full-time planner and has upgraded its finance department.
As it breaks away from receiving fire and rescue service from Delray Beach, which will come within three years, Highland Beach has a Town Commission and management team that is already overseeing an 18-person police department, a 10-person water treatment plant, a full-service library and a small contract post office.
That’s in addition to a town clerk’s office, a public works department and the building and finance departments.
The town also has a strong financial position, with a fairly low tax rate and about $6.1 million — or about 52% of the annual budget — in unrestricted reserves.
“We’re in the process of becoming a full-service community with growing expectations from our residents,” Labadie said.
Labadie and Mayor Doug Hillman say those factors — and the town’s ownership of a fire station, a truck and a rescue vehicle — put Highland Beach in better position than most towns to start its own fire-rescue department.
“We continue to find ourselves showing we are unique in this county,” Labadie said.
The town estimates that transitioning to its own fire department will include implementation costs of $8 million to $10 million but says that it will save about $2 million a year in operational costs.
Hillman and Labadie don’t underestimate the challenges of starting a fire-rescue department — something that hasn’t happened in Palm Beach County for at least three decades.
Still, they say that providing many services that most other small towns contract out gives Highland Beach an edge as well as additional independence.
“The addition of a fire-rescue department, although more complex, will be yet another addition to our self-governance,” Hillman said.
The ability to control the operations of a fire department was one of the factors involved in the town’s decision to break away from Delray Beach. Cost savings and improved efficiency, Hillman says, were always the driving factors.
Under the current contract, Highland Beach covers the cost of 22.5 personnel assigned to the fire station in town but has no say in how much Delray Beach pays its firefighters.
Each year, Delray Beach gives Highland Beach a bill for the fire service it provides, with Highland Beach having little or no input in how much that bill will be or how the firefighters in the station will operate on a day-to-day basis.
“We’re in a life-safety relationship and we don’t have the ability to manage the system more efficiently to meet our residents’ service needs and demands,” Labadie said.
Resident John Ross, a former Town Commission candidate and the author of a blog that comments on the town’s operations, says that Highland Beach’s lack of a seat at the table with Delray affects the overall town operations.
“The amount of money Highland Beach pays to Delray is entirely up to Delray, and that impacts what Highland Beach can spend on other things,” Ross said. “The choice of where to spend the money is the definition of sovereignty.”
In previous comments, Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said that Highland Beach is a customer of her city and is treated like a customer of a business.
“You don’t get to come to the board of directors and tell them how to run the company,” she said.
Ross and others counter that customers of private companies can do business elsewhere. For Highland Beach commissioners the choices were limited, especially after they discovered contracting with another government agency wasn’t feasible.
Recognizing there may be some truth in comments from skeptics who say Highland Beach leaders “don’t know what they don’t know,” the town has set out to hire experts to help with the transition.
During a meeting last month, Labadie detailed a time line of steps to be taken as the town moves forward.
He said the town has already moved ahead with hiring a medical director, a forensic accountant and possibly a marketing and public relations firm to help craft a branding and messaging plan.
Commissioners agreed that public education is one of the highest priorities, along with hiring a local fire consultant and a fire chief.
The education component is critical, Hillman said, since the town will be going to voters in November to get funding authorization because the project exceeds the town’s $350,000 spending cap.
Labadie said that as the town continues to move forward it will keep its focus on the needs of the residents.
“Public safety is at the forefront of every decision we make,” he said.