By Rich Pollack
As Highland Beach moves forward with its plan to start its own fire department and sever its service contract with Delray Beach, both sides are discovering that breaking up is hard to do.
In recent weeks, two complaints about how Delray Beach handled emergency calls have surfaced at Town Commission meetings, leading Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey to wonder out loud if there was a concerted effort to discredit his department.
At the same time, the two governments could be heading into a contract dispute over whether Delray Beach has the right to add four lieutenants to the 22.5 personnel assigned to the station it operates in Highland Beach, which would increase the town’s cost in the next fiscal year by 17%.
“Separation from a long-term contract isn’t always easy to do,” said Highland Beach Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “Emotions tend to take hold during the process.”
The emotions are surfacing at a time when Highland Beach is charging ahead with its plan. The town hired Glenn Joseph, a former Boynton Beach fire chief and Boca Raton deputy fire chief, as a consultant to help with implementation. It hired a marketing firm to help develop educational materials and coordinate events.
Commissioners in early August also developed ballot language that will come before voters in November and, if approved, would authorize the town to spend up to $10 million to implement a new fire department. A second option on the November ballot would authorize the town to spend funds necessary to operate the department.
As the transition continues, Tomey has come forward to defend his department’s personnel and reiterate that the high level of service Highland Beach receives has not changed.
In July, Tomey appeared before the Highland Beach Commission to voice his concern about a letter written to the town and included in the publicly available agenda package. In the letter, resident Stewart Perlow complained about seeing a neighbor fall as he got out of the fire department’s rescue truck.
Perlow wrote that the crew on the truck was negligent in allowing the resident to get out unassisted.
But Tomey said the paramedics on the truck told the resident to wait for them to help and he did not do so. The chief said he believed the town should not have posted the letter publicly and may have violated HIPAA requirements in doing so.
“This complaint and the way it was handled was to publicly disgrace the department,” Tomey said.
The town did remove the name of the resident from the letter, but Labadie said that Highland Beach was simply honoring Perlow’s request to have the letter included in the public comment section of the commission meeting.
At an earlier meeting, Vice Mayor Natasha Moore noted that she was jogging in early June when she saw a bicyclist get hit by a turning car across the street from the fire station.
She said she rang the doorbell at the fire station at about 8:15 a.m. and knocked on the door but got no response for several minutes. Police officers from the town responded and paramedics from the station were eventually dispatched and gave aid to the bicyclist, who suffered only minor injuries.
Tomey, at the meeting, acknowledged that the doorbell at the station was broken — which he said was the town’s responsibility — and that signage pointing to a call box that would have connected Moore to dispatchers was not as obvious as it should have been. Both issues have since been addressed.
After researching the call, Tomey said that the paramedics were dispatched at 8:20 and were treating the bicyclist by 8:21.
Moore said she believes it was important for her to raise her concerns about the response so any issues could be addressed.
“When something doesn’t go well, we need to give specific feedback,” she said. “I agree that Delray provides a high level of service and my expectation is that they’ll continue with that level of service.”
Tomey says that is exactly what will happen and wants the town to know that his firefighters and paramedics are just as committed to that goal as he is.
“Delray Beach Fire Rescue is providing the high level of service we always have,” he said. “We’re going to be professional.”
Dispute about rising cost
To continue that high level of service, Tomey and his staff say it’s important to expand the number of personnel on the rescue vehicle from two to three, which is how other stations operated by Delray Beach are staffed.
He said that had a third person been on the rescue vehicle during the incident Perlow cited, the man probably would have been prevented from leaving the vehicle unattended and falling.
In sending Highland Beach the budget projection for service in the coming fiscal year, Delray Beach officials included the four additional lieutenants, resulting in a 17% cost increase over the current amount, or about $782,000 more.
In response, Labadie sent a letter to Delray Beach saying the town is not interested in paying for the additional personnel and asking for a revised budget projection without the 17% increase. Delray Beach recently responded to Labadie by saying it continues to request the 17% increase.
Delray Beach has argued that under the contract it can adjust staffing as it sees necessary. Labadie doesn’t disagree but doesn’t believe the financial responsibility for that change would fall on Highland Beach.
“They can change staffing but they can’t unilaterally change the cost structure of the contract,” Labadie