Highland Beach residents showing up to vote on Nov. 2 were greeted by Commissioner John Shoemaker (in T-shirt), former Mayor Bernard Featherman and John Ross (red shirt), founder of The Committee to Save Highland Beach.
Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
By Rich Pollack
In an undisputed outpouring of support for an independent Highland Beach fire department, residents overwhelming voted Nov. 2 to let town leaders spend as much as $10 million to get the new department up and running.
With a steady stream of voters going to the polls and close to 900 residents casting ballots by mail, the referendum measure passed easily with almost 89% of voters supporting moving forward with the creation of a town-operated department and only 11% voting against.
A total of 1,320 residents voted in favor of the proposal with 168 residents voting against it. About 37% of just more than 4,000 eligible residents voted.
The large number of ballots cast was surprising to supporters considering the referendum question was the only item on the ballot.
“The turnout was beyond our expectations,” said Mayor Doug Hillman. “We are quite pleased with the involvement and support from residents who believe this an important issue for our town.”
Hillman said the one-sided result was a signal of trust in town leadership from residents to embark on such a massive project.
“I’m just thrilled the electorate demonstrated the confidence they have in our commission to take on this initiative,” he said.
Commissioner Evalyn David believes the potential for cost savings and better service was a factor in the overwhelming support from voters.
“It comes down to dollars and cents,” she said. “Residents believe that we are paying too much for the services we’re receiving. They also apparently believe that we can provide more personal services to our residents.”
Delray will lose a station
For almost 30 years, Highland Beach has been receiving fire service from Delray Beach, which staffs the town’s fire station. In April, however, town leaders voted unanimously to end the agreement with Delray Beach and create a town-run fire department over a three-year period.
Hillman and other commissioners have repeatedly said they believe the town can provide better service to residents at a lower cost than it is paying Delray Beach.
They have consistently pointed out that the new fire department will have two fire trucks and two rescue vehicles operating out of the station located next to Town Hall, as opposed to the one fire truck and one rescue vehicle currently at the station and staffed by Delray.
While the referendum results clear the way for the town to move forward, town leaders anticipate that it will be at least two years before the department is operational.
When that does happen, Delray Beach stands to lose between $5 million and $6 million in annual revenue it receives from Highland Beach.
In addition, Delray Fire Rescue will no longer be able to rely on firefighters working out of the Highland Beach station to respond to calls within the Delray Beach city limits, unless an agreement can be worked out.
A consultant study commissioned by Highland Beach showed that firefighters from the town’s station were dispatched to calls in Delray Beach about 667 times a year.
While a lot of variables remain to be figured out, town leaders believe they can run the fire department at about $1.5 million to $2 million less than what Delray charges and can recover the costs of starting a town-operated fire department in about five years.
“The No. 1 objective for us is to have the best possible service for our community,” Hillman said. “It just happens we can do it for less money.”
With the approval of voters in hand, town staff can move forward with plans for the purchase of big-ticket items such as a fire truck and a rescue wagon, as well as with renovations to the town-owned fire station, according to Town Manager Marshall Labadie.
Those efforts were stalled by the town’s funding cap, which prevents spending on any single item over $350,000 without a referendum.
“The vote moves the cap out of the way, only as far as the new fire department is concerned,” Labadie said.
He said that the town has been moving quickly on much of the groundwork needed to start a department.
“We’re well ahead of schedule in developing the processes and procedures and in filling out required county and state applications,” he said.
The town has also hired two consultants, former Boynton Beach Fire Chief Glenn Joseph and Tom McCarthy, the former EMS division chief of Riviera Beach. Highland Beach has also made arrangements to have a medical director on board.
Town did heavy marketing
In the run-up to the election, Highland Beach launched a focused educational campaign, enlisting the help of a marketing firm and producing several communication pieces centered on the slogan “Our Town, Our Station, Our Heroes.”
“We presented the facts and hoped residents could draw a similar conclusion to the one of the Town Commission — that this is the best choice,” Labadie said.
To get the message out the town used a variety of channels, including online video testimonials, a four-part email communication and a Facebook Live interview with Hillman. In addition, the town mailed fliers, held educational events with food trucks and hosted “coffee with the mayor.”
The town also put out signs urging residents to vote, while “vote yes” signs were put out by The Committee to Save Highland Beach, a political action committee, which also sent out fliers.
“We made a professional and concerted effort to educate the public,” Labadie said.