What kind of city do you want to live in?  Do you want a first-rate, full-service city that provides the full range of municipal services, or would you settle for a second-class city where some services are provided by other government entities over which you have no control?
    For several months our City Commission has been quietly exploring the possibility of giving our Fire Department to Palm Beach County. The county firefighters union proposed to our mayor that the city would save a lot of money by contracting with the county.
    Some analyses done for the city do show a savings. However, the supposed savings is counting vehicle replacement costs twice, and includes other assumptions that I believe are not correct.
    But if we can save money, why not contract for county fire-rescue service?
    There are numerous negative consequences, some of which include:
    • Calls to 911 would still be answered by Delray Beach Police/Fire Dispatch. Then the call would be transferred to Palm Beach County Fire Dispatch, adding 15 to 30 seconds to emergency response times. When seconds count, this seems very risky.
    • As part of the county fire department, Delray Beach units will be dispatched into adjacent areas of the county. It is likely that Delray Beach units will be dispatched into the county more than county units into the city. The result will be an even slower overall response to emergencies in the city.
    • While there may be some short-term savings, the city will have no control over future costs for fire-rescue services. The county will determine those costs and labor cost “pass throughs” are inevitable.
    • The city will remain responsible for providing and maintaining its fire stations for any maintenance cost exceeding $15,000 in any one year.
    • The city will still have to make up the funding shortfall in its firefighter pension plan. It is entirely possible that the cost of this shortfall will exceed $2 million annually for many years to come, offsetting any possible “savings.”
    • The city would have no control over the quality of service for fire fighting and emergency medical response.
    • Coordination of fire units and police units on the scene of an emergency will be degraded with fire and police dispatched from separate dispatch centers.
    • The city’s fire insurance rating will fall from a highly desirable Class 2 to a less favorable Class 3.
    • The city will have no control of the time required for Fire Safety to review and issue building permits requiring their approval.
    Even if the savings is real, should we give up our Fire Department in light of the negative consequences?
    A $2 million savings amounts to a potential property tax reduction of 32 cents per $1,000 of valuation. For property with a taxable value of $200,000 that amounts to $64 per year. Isn’t it worth that cost to keep faster emergency response times and local control of this vital public safety service?
    Also, the city’s actuaries have shown how $2 million could be saved by changes in fire and police pension benefits. Wouldn’t changing these very generous pension benefits, rather than giving up our Fire Department, be a better choice for Delray Beach residents?
David Harden
Former Delray Beach city manager,
1990-2013

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