Sometime over the weekend a rumor started spreading like fog around Flagler Beach that the county was going to take over the Flagler Beach Fire Department. It was false. Categorically so: The Flagler Beach fire chief, the county fire chief, the Flagler Beach city manager, the chairman of Flagler Beach’s city commission—none of them had wind of anything afoot proposing that the city’s fire department be either disbanded or that it merge with the county’s.
Flagler Beach Fire Chief Martin Roberts doesn’t like rumors. Like any fire chief would do at the hint of dangerous kindling in his community, Roberts held a meeting with his firefighters and volunteers Tuesday evening. They were at the firehouse for their weekly drill. It’s normally held on Monday evening. It was pushed to Tuesday because of Memorial Day. Before the drill, Roberts decided to quash what he termed the “vicious rumor.” His advice: “Stay quiet, dispel the rumor, and see where things go.”
But Former Mayor and firehouse cheerleader Ed Kuhnlein was also there. Kuhnlein, at 85, stills gets in a huff over any suggestion, real or invented, that the Flagler Beach Fire Department might be at risk. In his mind—regardless of the facts—the county is after the city’s firehouse. As Kuhnlein described it, City Manager Bernie Murphy had made “inroads” in getting the department “dissolved” by Oct. 1. “Basics of it is, we’re putting our guns on the table, we’re going to the public, we’re going to ask the public to support us as they have in the past.” The thing is: there’s no need. Kuhnlein’s pre-emptive strike against a ghost target is feeding the very rumor that the fire chief is trying to quash.
City Manager Bernie Murphy was taken aback by any suggestion of a county take-over, a dissolution or any sort of meetings between the city and the county over the issue. “It’s nonsense. If there’s a meeting going on, we were not participants in it,” Murphy said. His budget recommendations to the commission include a viable, operative fire department, minus some cuts, but not in personnel. There’s no question that the Flagler Beach Fire Department was required, like every department, to submit a budget reflecting deep cuts in its $500,000 budget (the department has seven employees, counting the fire chief. It has 25 volunteers.). But that’s the case in most local governments these days.
Here’s Flagler County Fire Chief Don Petito’s response when he was told of the alleged take-over of Flagler Beach’s department: “Really? When are we doing it?” He ridiculed the rumor. “I can tell you, it’s not coming from me or this office.”
Flagler Beach Commission Chairman John Feind was more guarded. “My feeling is that the fire department is an integral part of the city.” But a minority around town has been talking about consolidation over the years. To Feind, the fire department is part of the city’s identity. But this year’s budget is raising questions. “I don’t know what’s going to happen with this budget,” he said. “I haven’t seen the figures yet, so I don’t know how much money we’re going to have to cut out.”
One sitting commissioner did bring up the notion of consolidation three years ago: Ron Vath. Residents got upset. “They went door to door, it was around election time, and I nearly lost the election over it,” Vath said on Wednesday. “So from that point in time it has become kind of a sacred cow, but sooner or later you can milk the cow to death, and the budget continues to grow down there. I wasn’t in favor of that last truck they bought.”
Vath left the door open for questioning the fire department’s existence in the future. He said the department consumes between upwards of 20 percent of the city’s budget, “which is a tremendous amount, but the people seem to want a local fire department, so I haven’t made a lot of smoke about it. But what the future will bring, whether or not I’m a commissioner, I have no idea.”