For the past four months, Flagler Beach Fire Department personnel led by the department chief, City Manager Bruce Campbell and members of the City Commission have in one forum or another pitched, discussed, and supported the purchase of a $600,000 fire truck called a “quint,” outlining along the way ample amounts of information about the truck and why it was needed. Fire Captain Bobby Pace first pitched the idea at a commission strategy session in May.
The commission discussed it since at regular and budget meetings, prompted at times by some but seemingly limited public opposition—limited to a few but recurring and forceful voices, not least of them Commissioner Kim Carney. In May, Commissioner Steve Settle hosted a town hall meeting to dispel what he called “misinformation” (a characterization he retreated from in an interview today). The meeting featured Pace and three of his lieutenants. And firefighters themselves have invited anyone to visit the fire house or contact them to hear the information they have on the truck.
Settle nevertheless felt compelled to call yet another town hall meeting to discuss the truck purchase. As he called it to order late this afternoon, he explained that the meeting was necessary because the public has been hearing “only one side of the story, not both sides.” Tonight’s meeting’s purpose, he said, was to provide that “other side.” It was a remarkable statement, considering that Settle’s side of the story has effectively controlled the city’s message.
What Settle didn’t mention until after the meeting was the elephant to come, if it wasmn’t quite in the room Monday: a petition signed by upwards of 450 Flagler Beach residents and gathered by opponents of the fire truck buy.
“Would a petition with 500 signatures matter? In most cases—in my case, it would matter a great deal,” Settle said after the meeting. “Of course I’ll take it seriously.” But, he noted, that was the reason for the additional town hall today. “I don’t want 500 disappointed citizens in Flagler Beach thinking the commission has let them down or we’re not listening to them.”
Rick Belhumeur, the most public face of the opposition to the truck purchase, was at the meeting. He was unsure when the petition would be submitted to the commission. There was a possibility that it might be submitted at a budget workshop Tuesday, he said, though it may also be submitted at the commission’s regular meeting on Aug. 28, when Carney intends to make another presentation on the fire truck. Either way, the petition would presumably see light before either tax-setting hearings in September, when commissioners could still pull back from the truck buy by line-itemizing it out of the budget.
Belhumeur again reiterated his belief that the money could be better spent on other public safety items the city commissioners “want to get and have to get,” such as breathing equipment and emergency radios. When he addressed the town hall meeting this evening, he cited his conversations with Ormond Beach officials, where a quint purchase has led to a “nightmare” of maintenance, he said.
Today’s town hall began with Settle’s introduction, a budget briefing by Bruce Campbell, the city manager, then the question and answer period, with Settle and five firefighters on either side of him– Andy Thomas, Clint Dixon, Stephen Cox, Morgan Walden and Dusty Snyder. Pace, the fire captain, was off.
“This is not a case of a bunch of firefighters who want a new toy to play with,” Settle said.
But it was the same pro-truck argument that has been presented since May, convincingly enough for four of the five city commissioners to endorse the fire truck purchase in a recent budget hearing. Most of the few people who spoke today support the purchase. The people who’d spoken in May had divided evenly. But the speakers at both meetings offered their support and opposition with more reason than passion. Whatever groundswell the petition reflects, it was not echoed by the size or tenor of the few people assembled at the meeting Monday evening. (The meeting was held at City Hall’s chambers.)
The town hall in June drew 37 people, half of them linked in one way or another to the city, and that half overwhelmingly supportive of the fire truck buy. There were 29 people in the audience today, including three city commissioners, the fire chief, and several volunteers in the fire department. Neither meeting drew anywhere near the sort of overflowing audience that seriously contentious issues notoriously draw in Flagler Beach. And though Settle repeatedly said that today’s meeting was for the public to ask questions, what questions were asked hewed to the technical rather than the contentious, and most of those questions had been asked and answered before—why the fire department’s Tower 11 truck is not being repaired (too costly, too old, too unreliable), whether the new quint, as the proposed truck is called, will require more manpower (no), whether it’ll raise property taxes (no), what will happen to older tower truck (could be traded in for between $30,000 and $40,000), and so on.
“Were not here to hire anything, we’re here to educate you,” Steve Cox, one of the five firefighters sitting at the dais on either side of Settle, told the assembly. “There’s no smoke and mirrors or stuff like that. If you have any question, come down to the station.”
Commissioners Jane Mealy and Carney took notes. Commissioner Marshal Shupe listened. Interviewed briefly outside the chamber, Mealy said the petition was not likely to change her mind: she supports the purchase of the truck and considers it a matter of safety for the public.
“Petitions always make me think,” Mealy said, “but again, where are they getting their information from? I’m not sure it’ll sway my vote.”
What might? “If I find pout they’re not giving me the whole story,” Mealy said, referring to the firefighters inside. Mealy is spending the last three days of the week at a Florida League of Cities meeting in Hallandale, where she intends to ask a lot of questions of other city officials about the potential quint buy, essentially verifying what she’s been hearing locally.
The meeting lasted barely 70 minutes.