On paper, Friday’s Flagler Beach City Commission meeting appeared to be routine. But then, so did Monday’s Bunnell City Commission meeting agenda. Neither was. There were no scabrous revelations or attempted firings at the Flagler Beach meeting, but it began with a no-less flammable proposition that commissioners quickly snuffed out: That the city could save money by merging its beleaguered fire department with the county’s. The Flagler Beach Fire Department has been reeling from a scandal that led to the hurried firings of its chief and four other members of the department over alcohol and code of conduct issues.
Resident Rick Belhumeur lit the fire as he kicked off the public comment segment at the start of the meeting. Belhumeur, recalling how City Manager Bruce Campbell had invited residents to submit their cost-saving ideas in previous budget sessions, maintained the city would save $250,000 a year by merging fire-emergency medical services under the county umbrella.
Commissioner Kim Carney had wanted to have the matter discussed openly. She’d placed it on the agenda. Bruce Campbell, the manager, pulled it, according to the assistant city clerk. It’s unusual. But it’s not outside Campbell’s authority: the city charter gives the city manager, not the commissioners, the authority to decide what is and what isn’t on any given agenda, specifying that he compiles it, and he “shall have the liberty to schedule agenda applications as necessary due to meeting length.” Still, if length was an issue on Thursday, it shouldn’t have been: the commission’s agenda was among its shortest, and the meeting clocked in just past two hours, remarkably brief for this commission. It could have easily accommodated a discussion on the fire department, especially in light of its own very loud silence since the scandals.
That was the context of Belhumeur’s ire. That, and the fact that barely 24 hours earlier, during a budget workshop of its own, the Flagler County Commission itself broached the subject of fire department consolidation–what had, until then, been a sort of third rail of commission discussions. It was Commissioner Charlie Ericksen who touched the rail, only to be electrocuted by several commissioners’ responses. He made clear, as Carney also did Thursday, that he would not be backing down in future discussions.
“The county already has two full-time firefighter-paramedics assigned to Flagler Beach,” Belhumeur said at the Flagler Beach meeting. “These county firefighters respond side-by-side with Flagler Beach firefighters.” Palm Coast’s fire department also routinely responds to fires in Flagler Beach, and at times the Bunnell Volunteer Fire Department joins in.
Voices were tinged with emotion as the discussion wove back and forth in front of less than 20 residents who learned of Carney’s agenda issues. “The city is already trying to keep up with out-of-control costs of fire department pensions. The city is begging others with the cost of pier repairs. This commission voted to save a tiny amount of money by changing how these meetings are broadcast. But it won’t discuss saving over $200,000.”
At least 95 percent of calls to the city Fire Department are for emergency medical service, Belhumeur said, a percentage typical of every fire department.
“When there is a fire,” Belhumeur said, not entirely accurately, command of the scene is shifted to the Flagler County Fire Department. It sometimes is, as was the case when a wildfire threatened (and damaged) homes in Beverly Beach in March. But command also remains in Flagler Beach’s hands, as it did even the night of the fire that triggered the scandal in December. “Why then is the city paying big bucks for a fire chief and assistant fire chief?” Belhumeur said.
Belhumeur accused the City Commission of “playing politics like Washington politicians” by not putting the future control of fire-emergency medical service on the agenda.
“City staff has a responsibility to the citizens of Flagler Beach to at least discuss saving money,” Belhumeur said. “City staff has repeatedly requested delays in discussing this matter. This matter was supposed to be on the agenda tonight, but because of politics, it was pulled from the agenda.”
Belhumeur urged the City Commission to ask Flagler County officials for an updated proposal to take over the city’s fire and emergency medical needs and discuss it at the next meeting.
Although the City Commission normally refrains from commenting on discussion from citizens on items not on the agenda, Chairman Steve Settle opened the door to responses and comments from himself and other City Commission members.
“There is no political exercise here,” Settle said. “None at all.”
Settle said the comments from residents he hears do not support turning over fire and emergency medical services to Flagler County, but rather favor an effort to heal the city Fire Department shattered by the firing of five firefighters, including the chief, after an investigation showed personnel responding to a fire after drinking alcohol at a holiday party, as well as storing alcohol at the Fire Department. Chief Martin Roberts was fired in February along with paid firefighters Jacob Bissonnette and Shane S. Wood, along with volunteer firefighters Steven W. Wood and Barbara Haspiel. A sixth firefighter, Bobby Pace, was suspended three days without pay after falsifying the hours worked by a person assigned to perform community service by the court. The state attorney is looking into whether criminal charges are appropriate in Pace’s case.
“The way you are phrasing this is selling our Fire Department to the county,” Settle told Belhumeur. “I don’t think that’s the group thought. The group thought I hear from people I’ve talked to is a pressing need to restore employee morale and restore public confidence, to restore whatever damage has been done before we think about where we’re going next.”
The City Commission chairman said the upcoming annual budget workshops and discussions would be the appropriate time to discuss merging fire-emergency medical service with the county as a way to save money. “The budget process starts in a few weeks,” Settle said. “That’s when we talk about shifting costs.”
Settle invited everyone in the city to attend an open house at the Fire Department on May 6. He said people would be pleased with progress that has been made.
“I’m not trying to beat up on the fire department. That’s a lot of money,” Belhumeur said.
“I understand and there will be that discussion,” Settle replied. “There has to be that discussion.”
Joy McGrew, city commissioner, said her perception of public opinion coincides with Settle’s. “Any time and every time there’s been a suggestion of farming out the Fire Department, it has been overwhelmingly, do not get rid of our fire department, or our police department, and that has been citywide,” she said.
But Carney staked out an opposite view.
“This was my agenda item, and because of the enormous emotional part of this, that was why I asked for it to agenda before we went into budget” Carney said. “Rick and I, and many, many, many, many residents of Flagler Beach feel that there is no lost level of service. There is no public safety issue here. As a commission, we don’t know what we don’t know. So just like Bruce worked on budget items to send out or what we call outsource our parks, our landscaping and manicuring of our parks, we saved $78,000 by doing that. Did we as a commission give Bruce the go-ahead to do that? All I was looking for was a go-ahead. And during–you and I all know this–during the budget hearings, no one shows up.” She said those last words to the rhythm of her fingers pounding the dais. “Zero. Nada. So, for transparency, I felt an agenda item was more effective than a budget hearing item so that we could get it out on the table. I am open to a workshop if the mayor or whoever would go with me on a workshop on this. This is not a threat. It is a fact, that if we don’t take action tonight, this will be on the agenda again on the first meeting in May.”
“That’s pretty clear. Thanks,” Settle said.
Campbell didn’t say a word throughout the discussion, nor did he explain why he’d pulled the item from the agenda. He did not return several calls to his office and cell phone on Friday.
Commissioner Marshall Shupe, who is also a volunteer firefighter intimately connected with the department–and far from a disinterested voice in the matter–saved his comments and his emotions for the end of the meeting. He defended the city Fire Department, urged people to attend the open house to see improvements and asserted that volunteers give the city swifter emergency medical response. There would be no volunteers under the county, he said.
That was not a correct statement, however: Flagler County Fire Rescue has 30 volunteers currently (judging by the number of volunteers for whom it pays workers’ compensation insurance), and they could presumably be deployed under the county’s authority just as well. There was another inaccuracies in Shupe’s statement, as when he described an instance when, four days earlier, the county’s ambulance that’s normally stationed at the Flagler Beach station went to Palm Coast for coverage, because the units there were overtaxed with calls, suggesting that the city would then be underserved if the county alone were in charge. But, aside from the fact that ambulance units are routinely shuffled around the county to ensure broad coverage–an issue the cities have no control over whether they have their own fire departments or not– volunteers can’t provide what Advanced Life Support the county’s paramedics do provide, while Shupe’s example only underscored the fact that even now, a county ambulance is permanently stationed in Flagler Beach.
“There’s a lot of things people don’t see,” Shupe said. “These guys down there at the firehouse have been working four months putting that thing together. You’ve got to go down there and see it. We have somebody on shift 24/7, at least one if not two, that is ocean-rescue certified.”
A response from similar county certified personnel would take longer, he said, though the county’s ocean-rescue certified unit is stationed in the Hammock, just north of Flagler Beach.
Shupe barely controlled his anger as he launched into his criticism of talk of consolidation.
“One of the things I just found out today, and I resent it, because I think as an elected official, I’m supposed to know—excuse my language,” but then he decided against adding salt to his words, “I’m supposed to know what’s going on in the city, because people call me and ask me. Well, when I find out”—he bent down to his right, below the empty chair next to him, and picked up a piece of paper, continuing: “that there evidently have been meetings that have produced a matrix of where our four firefighters are going to be stationed if we were county, I resent that. I don’t know who the hell is, has discussed this with whoever, but I resent that, because I think that’s jumping the case. Not to mention that we haven’t even had a discussion and already it’s been emailed from the county, which was I guess retracted. I just got this this evening, that they’ve already placed our guys.”