For Bunnell’s Tucker, Sharp Loss on Firehouse Consolidation Signals Return to Minority
FlaglerLive | August 23, 2016
Has Elbert Tucker’s moment passed?
In his eight years on the Bunnell City Commission, the 68-year-old landowner, farmer, small-business owner and self-taught constitutional scholar has gone from the commission’s loneliest dissenter to its most powerful change agent to lone dissenter again: on Monday evening, his colleagues dealt his proposal to merge the Bunnell Volunteer Fire Department with the county’s fire rescue operation a merciless defeat.
Tucker had fallen a long distance from the times three and four years ago that he was the agent of the sharpest shift on the city commission, wresting power from Mayor Catherine Robinson by forming a majority around himself over two elections (consisting of John Rogers and Bill Baxley) and at the expense of Robinson’s long-standing majority. Tucker used the majority to get rid of a city manager and appoint two successors since, and shepherd a series of amendments that refashioned the city charter in his image.
But with his fire department gambit he appears to have overplayed his hand as one of his allies, Rogers, spoke categorically against closing the fire department while the other, Baxley, didn’t even think it worth addressing during the meeting: his silence spoke his contempt for the idea. But he made it clear after the workshop: “He did not convince me we need to make a move,” Baxley said.
“Four-to-one, I think it’s a pretty settled issue. I’d be foolish to do anything else,” Tucker said after the workshop.
It was the sort of defeat Trucker suffered three times in the earlier part of his tenure when he proposed letting the sheriff’s office take over policing in Bunnell. There was irony in his proposal’s defeat Monday. He was proposing eliminating fire operations to shift the saved money to the Bunnell Police Department, which he now wants beefed up. But he got no support from his fellow-commissioners. “I wouldn’t want to get rid of the fire department in order to hire new officers because there’s another staff that’s also needed within the city,” Commissioner Bonita Robinson said.
The fire department costs the city about $122,000 a year. Not all of that could be saved: the city would still have to pay the county to provide fire services.
A 45 minute counteroffensive from Derek Fraser, the city’s part-time fire chief, told commissioners his department and its 17 firefighters were doing too much for too little return to be considered either unessential or anything less than a bargain for the city.
“It’s probably the best-trained department we’ve had in quite some time,” Fraser said after spending what seemed like an eternity reading a list of his and his department’s accomplishments down to the smallest details, whether it was the number of staff meetings attended or job interviews he led with prospective firefighters or routine meetings he attended at other agencies, or even phone calls he took part in. He also listed the number of hours his firefighters contributed to Bunnell (12,000 in a year), awards and certificates handed out and received, meetings chaired, and so on.
Identity before dollars as Bunnell reasserts its allegiance to its own fire department.
Fraser said at $6.50 per call (that’s the rate a volunteer firefighter is paid, whether the call entails a five-minute look-over of a scene or a five-hour job fighting a fire), it’s a good value for the city. (Drivers are paid $7.50, lieutenants $8.50.) But Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson also reminded the audience that it’s about identity: the city likes having its own fire department, even at a certain cost.
“It wasn’t a win or lose, it was a matter of educating them about the fire department and they’ve got all the facts and figures from the fire department so they could make an educated decision. It’s a workshop, there’s no decision made in it. We’ll see if they pursue it further or not.”
Opening his presentation to the commission Fraser minced no words: he blamed former City Manager Larry Williams for eliminating the weekly reports to commissioners that his predecessor, Armando Martinez, had instituted. In those reports each department head was expected to outline the accomplishments for that week. The reports kept commissioners better informed about city business. Dan Davis, the new city manager, has not reinstituted them. Rogers said he wants the reports back, and may bring up the matter at a subsequent meeting.As Fraser spoke, about half his volunteer contingent of 17 firefighters (himself included) sat toward the back of the rows of chairs in the meeting room, all of them in uniform. They’d driven in two fire trucks and an SUV to beef up their presence, just as Flagler Beach firefighters had done two years ago when they felt their department was besieged by advocates of consolidation. Behind the Bunnell firefighters, against the back wall of the room, sat Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito next to Flagler County Administrator Craig Coffey. They’d come to provide information, if asked. No one asked. Afterward Coffey said the county’s involvement was “weird” in that he didn’t want to give the impression that it was stepping in where it wasn’t wanted, but didn’t want to turn down any request for information, either.
Coffey denied any suggestion that the county was interested in taking over Bunnell as a stepping stone toward more ambitious consolidations of fire services in the county.
Tucker’s presentation was much shorter than Fraser’s, though Tucker repeatedly questioned the validity of Fraser’s figures, suggesting they were inflated to make the city’s fire department look more crucial than it’s been. “I think there’s a discrepancy in what Bunnell calls a fire and what Flagler County calls a fire,” Tucker said, citing the 56 fires the Bunnell Fire Department says it responded to last year. Yet for all of Flagler County, 35 are reported. “Perhaps there is a discrepancy in how we classify fires?” He also questioned the low cost of gear for city firefighters, claiming it to be at least twice what the city claims it to be, and questioned why the city firefighters conducted mop-up operations at forest fires, when in his view it should be the responsibility of the Florida Fire Service. He’s right up to a point: the state division of forestry is responsible for wildfires, but city and county fire departments routinely assist and provide mo-up manpower, and do so across the state.
In sum, Tucker said, “We’re in the short end of the benefit, the long end of the cost, and it’s only going to go up.”
But from the looks of them, his fellow-commissioners were counting down the minutes: the workshop had begun at 6 p.m. A 7 p.m. meeting of the commission was scheduled. Mayor Catherine Robinson did not see inclined to extend the proceedings. Commissioners limited their comments to a few phrases. Only one member of the public spoke, and only to speak of the arcane insurance standards associated with fire departments and the cities they serve, not to address the essence of Tucker’s proposal.
Robinson herself offered a personal experience to explain her position.
“I came through on Memorial Day weekend, on memorial Day, through Espanola,” Robinson said. “And who’s sitting at the Espanola Fire Department [the county has a station there], but the Bunnell Fire Department. They’d been out working and the truck was there, they were working. I couldn’t help but stop and admire the fact that I’m in my bathing suit, just come from the lake, and they’re out there in the hundred-degree temperature, mopping-up forest fires. You’ve got to be impressed by that. And I understand it’s a dollar-cost benefit. But to me it’s worth, at this point in time, the benefit, to spend the money to spend the money that we’re spending to have the training ground and the training that we have going on.”