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After Years of Resistance, County May Finally Absorb Bunnell Fire Department In Expansion

| August 28, 2017

The principals in the proposed transfer of the Bunnell Fire Department to Flagler County's jurisdiction. From left, with his back to the camera, Bunnell City Commissioner John Sowell, Flagler County Fire Rescue's Joe King, Fire Chief Don Petito, Firefighters' union chief Stephen Palmer, who supports the merger, Bunnell Fire Chief Ron Bolser, and County Administrator Craig Coffey. (c FlaglerLive)

The principals in the proposed transfer of the Bunnell Fire Department to Flagler County’s jurisdiction. From left, with his back to the camera, Bunnell City Commissioner John Sowell, Flagler County Fire Rescue’s Joe King, Fire Chief Don Petito, Firefighters’ union chief Stephen Palmer, Bunnell Fire Chief Ron Bolser, and County Administrator Craig Coffey. (c FlaglerLive)

For Bunnell City Commissioner Elbert Tucker, it’s been the longest crusade: end the city’s fire department. End the city’s police department. Hand police or fire responsibility, or both, to the county.

His two or three attempts to end the police department in the earlier part of this decade fell flat. At least two attempts to end the fire departments followed since 2015, the last one just last year. But his third attempt may get him there.

He and another city commissioner—John Sowell, its newest member, and a retired member of the county’s rescue operation—are convinced a merger is the way to go. A third and deciding vote, that of John Rogers, is leaning that way.

And based on today’s joint meeting between Bunnell and the County Commission, even Bunnell Mayor Catherine Robinson, until now the staunchest defender of city institutions, which she considers part of the city’s heritage, is willing to entertain the proposal, assuming the transfer preserves a measure of that heritage. The County Commission, for its part, is fine with absorbing Bunnell’s fire department, even if it has been more of a bystander to the deal—and continues to be so.

“I don’t want the commission to take action until Bunnell has decided to,” County Commission Chairman Nate McLaughlin said. “Whatever you all want to do we stand ready to assist you.”

The Bunnell commission will not actually vote on that decision until its Sept. 11 meeting. But as matters stand today, the strong likelihood is that the commission will approve the transfer.

Robinson is sensing the tide turn against her wish to preserve the department this time. Even the city’s fire chief, Ron Bolser, is supporting the transfer, as is City Manager Dan Davis. Before becoming Bunnell’s fire chief this year, Bolser retired as a captain from Flagler County Fire Rescue, where he still has many friends and colleagues. More importantly, Davis’s budget for next year is already allocating savings from the $110,000 annual fire budget to other needs.

“We need that money and we have that money already plugged into some holes to fill for this coming year,” Davis said, especially in the police department. “This isn’t something that we have a saving of $110,000” to set aside. That’s the reason the administration is advocating for the transfer. In other words, even opponents of the transfer are in effect cornered by budgetary certainties this time.

Davis initiated discussions of a merger with the county months ago, before the city commission discussed it again, to address a shortfall in his city’s budget. A lot of equipment in the city’s fire department has to be retired because of age, and replaced. “It would take us a tremendous amount of money because we haven’t set any aside for that,” Bolser said.

As presented by Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito today, the number of calls for service also point to a city department operating more in assistance mode than anything else: out of 1,885 calls for service in Bunnell recently analyzed, 94 percent of the calls were handled by the county anyway. Those calls that the city handled were more like addressing courtesy issues such as help with a fire detector or, as Commissioner John Rogers archly put it, bringing down a cat from a tree limb.

That was a different assessment than the one former Bunnell Fire Chief Derek Fraser gave his city commission just a year ago, the last time his department was under threat of absorption by the county. At the time, Fraser, who has since retired, told the commission that the department was doing too much, for too little cost, to be abandoned. But Fraser’s number focused more on such things as the number of hours 17 volunteer firefighters contributed to Bunnell (12,000 a year) and the low cost for which they worked rather than the sort of service they provided. It was Commissioner Elbert Tucker who pointed out the low number of substantive fire calls the city’s department was responding to—questioning his own fire chief’s numbers along the way.

There’s also the fact that since Bunnell doesn’t have a medical director, its firefighters are not allowed to provide medical services at an emergency scene, the way county firefighters do. There were 1,576 calls for medical service in Bunnell last year, the overwhelming majority of calls to fire departments. The county handled them.

“It’s not like we’re getting something for nothing, we’re getting something we’ve always been paying for,” Tucker said.

Based on the proposed agreement between Bunnell and the county that both governments would have to approve-an agreement drafted by the county—Flagler would absorb the Bunnell Fire Department for what would be a 30-year term. Bunnell would keep ownership of the fire department’s infrastructure—its property and building across from the county’s Government Services Building, on State Road 100. The county would house a fire truck and an ambulance of its own in that building. It would maintain and staff it with three shifts of crews of two, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

That will enable the county to do what it wants to do anyway: expand its arsenal of active rescue units from the seven to eight, thus both improving its coverage areas while also reducing the amount of calls on particular units by spreading out those calls more. “For us on the county side the need to add an additional rescue is here,” Petito said.

County Administrator Craig Coffey called the merger with Bunnell “convenient timing,” though it’s a significant advantage for the county, which would not have to build a costly fire station. It would spend $20,000 remodeling the station.

The county would also assist Bunnell in selling Bunnell’s existing fire equipment, a revenue the city needs to help pay for its retired firefighters’ pensions.

Those retirees are a key concern for city commissioners. Volunteer firefighters in the city become vested after 10 years’ service, earning $47 a month for every year of service. The city only has three vested firefighters, possibly four, and would owe them $12,000 in the coming year (among them its retired chief). If the city eliminates its department, it would have to continue paying those pensions, but would lose $2,000 in annual state contributions. The city is prepared to do that, pending an actuarial study showing future costs compared with buying out the retirees.

Rogers, the Bunnell commissioner, had been concerned about the city’s volunteers and their future. “There’s no guarantee that them guys are absorbed by the county. They have to apply and qualify,” he said. But the proposed agreement put him at ease, financially.

“If you’d asked me last week before I read the resolution, I would have told you I was leaning to keep it,” Rogers said of the fire department. “But now that the interlocal agreement has the city of Bunnell paying nothing and the city of Bunnell is getting an ambulance, I’m leaning the other way.” (An interlocal agreement is essentially a joint agreement between two independent local governments.)

“It’s very good for our volunteers,” fellow-commissioner Sowell said. “Nothing changes for them other than who they report to,” assuming they become county volunteers.

“There’s heritage here and there’s history here,” Robinson said. “I’m looking for some heritage here and some maintenance of history going forward, so we don’t lose that.” For example: keeping the Bunnell station named the Bunnell station. Petito assured her that would be the case even if the station was numbered, as it surely will be as well, in line with other stations.

In previous attempts to get the county to take over the fire department, Tucker was the most talkative member of the city commission at meetings where the matter was discussed. He would present reams of facts to buttress his case in addition to his own pleadings. Others would say little, knowing they had the votes to keep Tucker isolated. Not today. He spoke very little, either at the workshop or at Bunnell’s own workshop on the issue, which followed the county’s within an hour. Tucker this time sensed that one of his biggest goals is within his grasp.

“If they read the financial statements, it’s not a hard decision,” Tucker said between the two meetings.

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15 Responses for “After Years of Resistance, County May Finally Absorb Bunnell Fire Department In Expansion”

  1. Robert Lewis says:

    If this ain’t a criminal enterprise then I don’t know what is. The county got their guy on the inside as fire chief and one of their own elected as a Bunnell commissioner. All the while The Godfather Nate MacLaughin continues to push his agenda. Who is paying for all this?

    Is the county raising my taxes to pay for Bunnell? How much does a new fire engine and ambulance even cost? I liked the idea of a volunteer firemans, it saves the tax payers money. I wonder how they are going to stick Palm Coast with the bill. After all they are the golden cash cow to pay all of Coffees wants.

    I remember when they didn’t grade or mow my street. They took our money from the service district and abandon us. All we did in Palm Coast was pay for Bunnells Taj Mahal and improprieties. It’s a sad state of affairs when MacLaughin interjects himself into public safety.

    This right here is the very corruption why we formed a city. They get their friends and family into office and then make decisions for what best suited them and not the tax payers. Just a shame. Damn shame what’s going on here.

  2. Sw says:

    Quit dragging your feet on the public services. Especially Fire Rescue, Police ,Helicopters. Etc etc. Its stupidity already

  3. Anonymous says:

    I too want to know who is going to flip the bill. It’s obvious if Bunnell could afford it they wouldn’t be turning it over to the county. McLaughlin is up for reelection in 2018…he needs to go packing just as Hanns and Revels did. Coffey needs to be shown the door. This is all good old boy politics at our expense. It’s too bad we have a mayor and council members in Bunnell who can’t find their ass with both hands. Bunnell either needs to be a city or they don’t. It wasn’t that long ago that the same game tried to be played on Flagler beach but they were a little smarter…just a little.

  4. Tired of it says:

    It will be very interesting to see what level of service the tax payers of Bunnell will get from the County when the shit hits the fan during the next hurricane or for that fact any type of disaster that may effect the city. Having been involved with the emergency services in Flagler County for over 30 years I can tell you first hand that the county fire service will be nowhere to be found when the taxpayers of Bunnell will need help. The Bunnell city commission has forgotten all of the hours the VOLUNTEERS worked during the 1998 wildfires, numerous hurricanes over the past years and whenever the city crews needed help clearing roads of debris and downed trees. Ask the county if their union fire fighters will perform those tasks or will they claim it’s not in their job description. Chief Bolser should be ashamed of himself for not standing up for his department, but I bet there will be something special in it for him within the county system. The city commission should also be ashamed of themselves for eliminating a level of service that historically has protected the tax base of the city for many years. Watch out PD you will be next if Elbert Tucker gets his way. Heck not to many years ago Tuckers property wasn’t even in the city limits, but now he wants to sytematically do away with valuable city services. I hope the citizens come together and tell the city no to allowing the county to take over their fire department.Sad, sad, sad for the volunteers and the citizens.

  5. Angry citizen says:

    This is wrong so so wrong bunnell fire rescue is the only fire department I’ve seen to have a real brother hood and treat the people the respond to like real people and not someone who is taking up time from bigger better calls. Bring in a county chief to the station and everyone knew the station would go to hell because Derek gave up and screwed the department by pretty much handing it to the very people who want to destroy bunnell fire rescue. Sorry to say this is the stupidest decision to ever be made on the safety of the people of that city

  6. Whatever says:

    It’s about time! Now if they were smart, and the people would drop their home rule bull, we would save a Ton of money by consolidating Flagler Beach and Palm Coast to county fire EMS rescue. The duplication of these emergency services needs to stop.

  7. EJR says:

    To Whatever: No thanks

  8. Whatever says:

    To EJR: The County already handles all EMS and transporting. The cites duplicate this by sending a $ 350,000 fire truck which is not needed over 90% of the time. The only way to keep taxes in check is to consolidate as many services as possible. Are you aware that Palm Coast has a Fire.chief. Deputy chief, 3 battalion chiefs, 3 Captains and 15 lieutenants! YIKES! Add to that the administration for all of them then, put Bunnel and Flagler Beach on top of that and the County. Wow what a huge expense for a county with a population just over 100K.

  9. Robert Lewis says:

    I remember during 1998 when we had only a county service. Never again. Never ever again.

  10. Robert Lewis says:

    I don’t need insurance 90% of time time. But for that 10% you bet I need it.
    Whatever sounds like an insider justifying this criminal enterprise

  11. EJR says:

    Whatever: You have been misinformed, which in turn is providing the readers with inaccurate information in regards to EMS. Indeed the county does transport, but Palm Coast fire trucks provide ALS care until the EMS transport unit arrives. I also believe that Flagler Beach fire trucks have first responders/EMTs. Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t a county fire truck and a county EMS ambulance both respond to medical calls in Hammock area? Not sure what the difference would be doing that in the Palm Coast city limits then. In reference to the personnel you mentioned, I would assume it is in preparation of expanding services due to the continued growth of the city. Don’t get me wrong, I am all about saving money on my tax bill….maybe having a private ambulance service to take people to the hospital would be a good solution.

  12. Whatever says:

    EJR. The information is correct your interpretation is flawed. What I am saying is the duplication of services sending both the fire truck and the ambulance. You need not look any further than the runs to see that the majority of the time one or the other is cancelled. There are more efficient ways to handle this.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’m confused…Angry Citizen blames prior Chief Derek saying “everyone knew the station would go to hell because Derek gave up and screwed the department by pretty much handing it to the very people who want to destroy bunnell fire rescue.” Is a fire chief not allowed to retire after probably over 20 years at the department (that I know of) and 10 years as chief? Did he have final hiring authority of this new Chief? My knowledge of the City tells me no, he didn’t and I’m sure it was left with the city manager and commissioners influence. Can we see the whole plan so the citizens of Bunnell can make an informed decision before we jump to conclusions?

  14. Anonymous says:

    I agree have ONE FD for all the county and save taxpayers from paying for multiple Chiefs.

  15. Lt Richard A Kocik says:

    As the operations lieutenant of Bunnell Fire Rescue, I would like to thank the citizens who have supported us through this time. This has been a trying time for all of the members and we are still, even through this, staffing the station on our own time even with the pending take over. To address some comments above, Ex Cheif Derek Frazer did a fantastic job as a cheif, and dispite what is rumored, had put in for money set aside every budget year for future major purchaces so the department wasn’t left behind in the times. Our current cheif is not just letting the county take over, as he had worked for days on end to try and secure grant money when the money on the city end was not there. This has not been easy on him I can assure the readers.

    The question of duplication of services above: yes the county sends an ambulance to all medical calls, with the cities of Palm coast and Flagler Beach sending a fire truck with them. This is not a duplication, but an assistance. Most times a county ambulance only has 2 Fire Paramedics and extra hands are always needed. Even in the county response areas by the airport, west side, and Hamock Dunes, a county fire truck goes with the ambulance.

    Lastly I would like to address that even though the county has offered to bring in our firefighters as members, there are 4 members, myself included who cannot join due to our places of employment. I wish the best to our members going over to the county and to our citizens of Bunnell.

    Thank you

    Richard A Kocik
    Bunnell Fire Rescue

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