The special Flagler Beach City Commission workshop held this afternoon was not about whether to buy a new fire truck: that matter was mostly settled when all but one of the city commissioners lent support for the $546,000 purchase during a budget workshop. The city manager is behind the purchase. And of course the fire department is pushing for it, five years after buying its last fire truck for nearly the same price.
The workshop this afternoon was to give the public a chance to weigh in and voice its concerns. It was a workshop as pressure valve, a means for the commission as residents’ representatives to complete its due diligence. But what questions the commissioners and the mayor asked Bobby Pace, the fire chief, and Stephen Cox, the fire captain who briefed the commission and public on the proposal, were designed more to elicit justifications for the purchase than to challenge it.
Judging from the audience that turned out–just 14 people, among them a representative of the fire truck manufacturer–what public opposition exists is nowhere near the intensity of opposition five years ago, when it took the city nearly a year to go from proposal to approval, at one point scaling a petition that included 650 signatures in opposition to the truck buy. When Cox and Pace held a town meeting to defend the purchase at the time, City Hall’s chamber was fuller, the opposition more strident, and the tension visible in the firemen’s faces.
Today, Cox alternated slides with humorous one-liners (he showed a picture of the city’s very first fire truck decades ago and promised not to use it unless absolutely necessary), while Pace spoke with the kind of assertiveness that echoed the support he has from City Manager William Whitson. He sat next to Whitson as the public spoke–another indication of the dynamics at play.
The commission’s support is based on a set of realities, most of which are not in dispute. The city is aiming to replace Engine 111, a 1996 Pierce Pumper with a current value of $2,000, and the look of a truck that could be its own antique. It’s not currently in service: its water tank has a leak and the cab’s AC is not working.
The city has been saving money to buy a replacement truck for five years, and has all but $76,000 of the cost in hand: the city budgets $100,000 a year for its fire truck capital reserve fund, using revenue from the small-county sales surtax, which generates about $200,000 a year, growing somewhat every year. The city gets a share of that revenue from the half-penny surtax imposed by the county.
“The commission over the last several years has worked on planning rotations in vehicles in every department,” whether it’s police cars, maintenance trucks, garbage trucks, or utility trucks, Commissioner Jane Mealy said. “We’ve been planning for this one for the last four years. This is year five.”
The replacement would be a 2020 Pierce demonstration fire truck with a 750-gallon tank and 3,000 miles. The city’s ladder truck would become a back-up or a “jump truck,” used for high-angle rescues, for example. The availability of the three trucks would extend the lives of each, including Engine 11 and Ladder 11.
Factual certainties aside, the opposition to the truck buy is based on a different kind of judgment: the city’s–and particularly the fire department’s–judgment that three trucks are needed to run the department. Opponents see that judgment as subjective, at odds with staffing possibilities. Opponents have made much of the claim that Flagler Beach doesn’t need three trucks in a department that only has three firemen on duty per shift. Only one truck can be used, volunteers aside.
It’s a matter of back-ups, Pace said.
Commissioner Rick Belhumeur asked when Engine 11 would be replaced. Pace said seven years from today, though he said extending that timeline would be possible, especially with the new fire truck allowing more balanced uses of the three trucks. Belhumeur is the one dissenter to the truck buy–as he was five years ago. But even his questions were half-hearted and brief. “That’s it? You’ve got two pages of notes,” a surprised Commission Chairman Eric Cooley asked him when Belhumeur was done. That was it for now, the commissioner said.
The mayor asked if the county could be relied on for a back-up truck, if necessary. The county, Palm Coast and the city do, in fact, have a mutual-aid agreement in place. It’s “a situation we do not want to be in,” Pace said, describing it as “a cardinal sin for me,” which happened in the past: all three trucks were down, his department had to borrow a truck from Palm Coast a year and a half ago.
Fifty minutes in, the meeting shifted from commissioners’ questions to public statements. Four residents spoke strongly against the purchase. But two spoke just as strongly in favor.
Paul Allen on South Daytona Avenue who was himself a firefighter and department chief over his 30-year career, including many years in a fire marshal’s office, outlined a set of data that showed the city’s back-up trucks are underused, Engine 111 especially. “It’s unneeded,” he said. “Why replace vehicles that are not being used to extinguish fires?” he asked. He said the city could more appropriately and creatively find ways to manage its department at lesser expenses.
Kim Carney, the former city commissioner who’d also led the opposition to the fire truck purchase five years ago, said “age is not the number one reason to replace,” and blaming a lack of long-term planning on the age of the fleet. But she repeatedly stressed there was no need to replace Engine 111. Even with a new truck, the city would not meet certain The National Fire Protection Association staffing standards. “We only have staff for one fire company and one fire truck, so why do we need three?” she asked.
Another critic cited a “haphazard approach to planning” for new trucks, urging that the city retire 111 but not replace it. If the fire department continues to fund trucks at its current pace, the infrastructure surtax dollars could not meet the burden over time. (“We’ve had enough discussion up here to say that’s not true,” Mealy said of the haphazard criticism. The city manager said future plans will be published.)
“It’s too expensive for a city the size of Flagler Beach,” another resident said of the purchase, noting that even if the money was drawn from the surtax revenue, that draw would mean the city’s general fund would have to be used for other infrastructure needs. Therefore, she said, there would eventually be an impact on the property tax. “We’re not staffed to operate multiple trucks,” she said. “We must depend on the county and Palm Coast for any structure fire for the safety of our citizens.” (In fact, Palm Coast and the county typically send their fire trucks on all serious fires in Flagler Beach.)
The final two speakers on the main agenda item, however, were cheerleaders for the department, saying if the city had the money and the need, it should buy the fire truck.
“As the new guy that was kind of where I was,” Whitson, the city manager, told the commission and the public when the final two–supportive–commenters were done. “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. My experts tell me they needed equipment. They know this city, they know what they do each and every day, I’m going to support them.”
The workshop then veered into a lengthy discussion of ISO ratings (the Insurance Services Office’s rating of fire departments provided to property insurers, a largely esoteric discussion since the proposed fire truck would not statistically affect ISO ratings in the city. “I wish we weren’t having this emphasis on the ISO,” Mealy said. “I didn’t know what even started the emphasis on the ISO, I think that’s a nice thing, if it’s helping my homeowner’s insurance that’s nice, but I would not vote to buy a new fire truck or not buy a new fire truck based simply on an ISPO rating. I’m more interested in having a well-run department that can accomplish its job, so I really wish this whole discussion on ISO had never started.”
Belhumeur said the fire department’s budget doubled in five years without its new equipment. He was concerned about having three trucks on the department’s continuous replacement rotation. “I suggest that we buy the new truck, sell or trade Engine 11 and 111,” he said, “and have two almost brand new trucks over there, and then start your replacement schedule from there, and buy another truck when the development generates the revenue to pay for it.” But the idea has not drawn support. The commission, clearly strongly supportive of the current proposal, signaled it will be taking a closer look at the city’s fire-truck replacement protocol–the frequency and annual appropriations needed to abide by that protocol, and its transparency, which has been wanting in the past.