Last Updated: 6:30 p.m.
Bunnell Fire Chief Derek Fraser was visibly put out five months ago when he was called upon to justify his job’s and his department’s existence in front of the City Commission. Commissioner Elbert Tucker’s proposal to abolish the department and let Flagler County Fire Rescue replace it had necessitated Fraser’s defense. He prevailed, decisively so, with four commissioners voting to keep the department. But Fraser has now tendered his resignation, effective March 30.
Fraser, 53, doesn’t say so in his brief resignation letter, but City Manager Dan Davis, after conversations with him, said Tucker’s attempt to end the department played at least a role in his decision to resign, though he mostly wants to end his 25 years with the city, the last nine as fire chief, to devote more time to family.
“He did admit that that weighed on him pretty hard,” Davis said of the Tucker proposal, “and the budget, trying to run a department on $115,000.” Fraser is a part-time chief, making $25,500. He had a contracting business in the past, Derek Fraser Contractor Inc., but that has lapsed. He owns a management company that Fraser Storage Properties, with two properties in Bunnell and one in Flagler Beach.
“It has been a very rewarding experience as well as very challenging,” Fraser said in his Dec. 27 letter to Davis.
“The chief’s position is a part time position,” Fraser said in an interview this evening. “When you put the demands of that on top of a full–time job, after 53 years it’s time to slow down and spend more time with my family.”
The Tucker issue, Fraser said, “wasn’t a huge factor” in his decision, “it’s more of the time issue. I probably spent 20 or 30 hours in getting data to defend it, so when you have a job that’s packed full of responsibilities as it is, it creates a backlog, but anyway I wouldn’t say it was a major issue.”
The resignation is reviving Tucker’s interest in exploring his proposal again. And with a March election ahead, with three candidates—including two incumbents—vying for two seats, there’s a possibility that one of the seats could turn over, bringing on a new commissioner, though that candidate, John Sowell, for now appears to be on the majority’s side for keeping the department.
“Do we want to be a city or do we not want to be a city? A lot of the things that define a city are the services that are provided to the people,” Sowell said. “If we transfer money to Flagler County to make up for the services that Bunnell provides, there might not be a savings.” Sowell worked for county government as a pilot for its FireFlight emergency helicopter for many years. Still, Sowell said, he’s interested in having the discussion about the fire department and basing his decision on facts.
To Tucker, the make-up of the commission may not have changed, but neither have the facts as he sees them. In his analysis last year, he saw savings of $130,000 to $150,000 a year, even as the city would pay about $30,000 a year to provide fire services, most of those being devoted to vehicle crashes or medical calls anyway: only a fraction of emergency calls have anything to do with actual fires.
“I haven’t changed my position,” he said. “I just didn’t have a lot of support. The dollars and cents of it really don’t make sense.”
Tucker says the Bunnell Fire Department routinely arrives at fire scenes after Flagler County Fire Rescue engines arrive, with the county’s personnel remaining in command and often getting assistance from palm Coast and Flagler Beach, as was the case with a fire on Dec. 30 in Bunnell.
“It just makes sense to me that we should hook up with the county, because we’re already paying taxes to the county,” Tucker said. “So we’re double charging the citizens of Bunnell for a fire department that always comes in second. If you look at the numbers and the history, we’re spending money that we don’t need to. And you can print that. That’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. It’s a determination, that’s what it is. It’s my determination.”
John Rogers is one of the two commissioners running for reelection. Bonita Robinson is the other. Both voted against ending the fire department last August.
“The fire department is part of our identity as a city, so I’m sure we’re going to be having some meetings on what direction to go and proceed with that,” Rogers said. “I stood with Chief Fraser with the Fire Department in the past. It would have to be a convincing argument to change my mind. I’m sure it’s going to come before us for discussion.”
Of Fraser, Rogers said: “We definitely appreciate the years of service that Derek has provided to the city and this community. He’s been a leader, a great leader, a mentor and a role model for the volunteer firemen that have come through under his tenure, and we wish him nothing but the best of luck in his retirement. We’re going to miss him as a community.”
Fraser said there is one individual within the department who’s shown an interest in taking over his positiopn, and Fraser himself has put out feelers, but the position has not yet been posted.