Delray Beach Fire Rescue responded to 667 calls last year within the Delray city limits from the station in neighboring Highland Beach. One ladder truck and one rescue wagon are currently assigned to the station. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
After almost 30 years of paying Delray Beach millions of dollars for fire and medical rescue services, Highland Beach is calling it quits and moving forward with plans to start its own fire department.
At a meeting last month, town commissioners voted unanimously to notify Delray Beach of plans to terminate the contractual agreement — with a price tag of about $5 million a year — with a required 36- month notice effective May 1.
“We know we can deliver better service to our residents and we know we can do it at a lower cost,” Mayor Doug Hillman said. “There is no reason in my opinion to stay with Delray fire.”
During the next three years Highland Beach will work out the details of starting a fire department almost from scratch, something that apparently hasn’t been done in Palm Beach County for at least three decades.
The move bucks a local trend in which smaller communities such as Ocean Ridge, South Palm Beach and Manalapan have been paying for services from larger departments, including Boynton Beach and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.
Although Highland Beach commissioners have said they would be amenable to renegotiating, Delray Beach commissioners signaled during a meeting last month that they don’t see that as an option.
“It doesn’t appear there is room for negotiation as far as our commission and our fire chief are concerned,” Delray Beach Mayor Shelly Petrolia said following that meeting.
The city’s position apparently has not changed in the wake of Highland Beach’s decision to end the relationship.
“I think the time for negotiating has passed,” Delray Beach Fire Chief Keith Tomey said after learning of the decision. “Highland Beach wanted to cut $1 million from the contract, but that isn’t feasible.”
Delray Beach Vice Mayor Shirley Johnson said she respects Highland Beach’s decision to move on.
“As much as we’d like to continue the relationship, the agreement isn’t working for both parties anymore,” she said. “I wish the town of Highland Beach success.”
Although Highland Beach officials repeatedly said they were happy with the exceptional service they receive from Delray Beach, town leaders balked at the costs they said were unsustainable.
The town currently pays about 40% of its annual operating budget, or about $5 million a year, for services from Delray Beach, a cost that was expected to increase by about $300,000 each year.
The current cost per call, Hillman said, is extraordinary.
“Every time someone from Highland Beach dials 911, it cost Highland Beach $7,000 to send that truck out to service the call,” the mayor said.
Tomey said measuring cost per call is a “distorted way” of looking at emergency response.
“We have to be fully prepared with staffing, equipment and training for any and all emergencies in each area,” he said. “We aren’t making widgets, we are saving lives and property.”
While a consultant estimated that Highland Beach could save as much as $2.5 million in operating costs in five years after starting its own department, the town will have to incur significant start-up costs between $7 million and $8 million, Hillman said.
Tomey said Highland Beach officials likely will be surprised by the actual costs.
“I think the town commissioners have been misinformed about the costs of creating and running a fire department,” he said. “There are a lot of things the consultant left out and a lot of things that the commissioners aren’t considering. They simply don’t know what they don’t know.”
At the same time, Delray Beach will have to find ways to fill the estimated annual income of almost $6 million Highland Beach would have to pay if it stayed beyond the next three years. The department also will have to figure out how to respond to the calls within Delray Beach that the Highland Beach station covers now.
That number was 667 in 2020, according to Highland Beach’s consultant.
Tomey said he’ll work with the City Commission, city staff and fire rescue staff to address those issues.
“My goal is for no firefighter to lose a job,” he said. “Those 667 calls will still need to be answered.”
Vice Mayor Johnson doesn’t see the coming challenges as insurmountable. “With Delray being the city that it is, I’m confident that we’ll be able to work it out,” she said.
Petrolia said she is confident the city can find ways to fill the gaps by moving personnel to meet area demands.
“Maybe we have to look at making our department more efficient,” she said.
Petrolia said she understands Highland Beach’s concerns, but does not think it’s fair for Delray Beach taxpayers to subsidize Highland Beach.
“Their millage rate is about half of ours,” she said.
She and Tomey both said that Delray Beach does not make any money as a result of the agreement, which calls for Highland Beach to pay for the cost of staffing a town-owned station with a full complement of 22.5 personnel.
During presentations to both the Highland Beach and Delray Beach commissions, Tomey pointed out that Highland Beach is considered part of the Delray Beach service area and as a result has access to all of that city’s resources should they be necessary.
He said his department provides Highland Beach with “the gold standard of medical care and fire service.”
Privately, however, some Highland Beach commissioners have argued that the town could be even more responsive to the needs of residents if it had its own department and didn’t respond to calls in Delray Beach.
While one ladder truck and one rescue wagon are currently assigned to the Highland Beach station, town leaders point out the consultant report includes the town having two rescue wagons, a ladder truck and an engine at the station.
With the additional apparatus fully staffed, a Highland Beach department would respond to simultaneous calls more quickly. Under the current arrangement, a second rescue truck usually comes from over the Linton Boulevard Bridge to handle simultaneous calls in the town.
Highland Beach commissioners recognize the amount of work and number of decisions ahead before the town is ready to launch its own department, but they say they are committed to making it work.
“The No. 1 objective and the No. 1 key point is the health and safety of our residents, not the savings,” Hillman said. “We will spend whatever we have to spend to make sure our residents get the best possible service.”