It was not an easy-going meeting. Right from the start of this afternoon’s 90-minute Flagler County Commission workshop addressing ambulance service in Palm Coast—which the county provides—county commissioners, the county administrator and the county fire chief were questioning why they were having to go through today’s exercise to start with.
In the end, the most that was achieved today was agreement between the county and Palm Coast to do what they had not managed to do for months: agree to formally meet, face to face, in a joint workshop. The date of that workshop was not set. And the chances for such a workshop to break through the sort of set positions each side has taken appears, based on today’s meeting, low.
And there was little question about the adversarial nature of the discussion: even the county’s presentation was dubbed, at least in its computer file format, in the manner of a court case: “FC v COPC EMS,” that is, Flagler County vs. City of Palm Coast Emergency Medical Services. (See the presentation below.)
Before Fire Chief Don Petito launched into his presentation, with some city officials in the audience, among them Mayor Jon Netts, Commissioner Frank Meeker repeated the question he’s had for months: What’s the issue? Commissioner Nate McLaughlin wondered whether there’s been an “outcry” to speak of from residents on the east side of the county regarding ambulance service.
“We haven’t heard any,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said. “That’s why we’re struggling a little bit to fix something that doesn’t appear to be broken.” That was before he and Petito floated the suggestion that county and city fire services could be consolidated, and $1 million saved, a non-starter as far as Palm Coast is concerned.
Palm Coast since last fall, driven by Mayor Jon Netts’s insistence that the system could be made more efficient, has been pressing the county to reduce costs. The county provides ambulance service. But county and city both almost always respond to fire and medical calls in Palm Coast (one or the other can be “cancelled” on the way, when the call is less than critical). They usually do so with a county ambulance—city paramedics may not transport patients—and a Palm Coast fire truck. Palm Coast wants to use its fire trucks less, to save money.
How is that the county’s problem?, Meeker asked. It isn’t Petito’s presentation showed, but that’s not Palm Coast’s point: Palm Coast is proposing to switch resources around in such a way that an additional two county ambulances are located in city fire stations, thus increasing the total number of ambulances in the county from seven to nine, and helping to decrease response time to emergencies.
The city claims that the additional two ambulances can be taken from the county’s inventory of four back-up ambulances, at no additional cost.
Petito was very quick to dismiss that claim. “They’re spare for a reason: they’re used sparingly. So in order for this plan to work we’re going to have to buy two additional units,” Petito said.
He said it costs $75,000 per person to add a paramedic-firefighter, and $525,000 a year to staff an ambulance, though Palm Coast says additional personnel would not be necessary for its plan to work. Petito is skeptical.
When the county and the city talked administratively about improving efficiencies, the county proposed to the city that it could buy “jump trucks,” that is, smaller, pick-up truck-like vehicles to send to fires instead of fire trucks.
“This option goes directly to the issue of fire trucks,” Meeker said. “So now I know what the issue is that we’re trying to resolve,” and the jump truck option, he said, makes sense. Other issues and options, he said, had “nothing to do with this.”
‘This was the simplest, less complex, it saves the city money,” Coffey said.
The county invited other fire officials to address the commission, among them Carl Shank, the St. Johns County fire chief, who’s worked with Palm Coast and the county’s fire services. “You all are really blessed with a good problem here,” both agencies being of high quality,” Shank said. He cautioned against “tinkering” with a working system in order to “save a dime today to cost a dollar down the road here.” Jump trucks have their purposes, he said, but they take individuals off of fire engines to a certain time, which could lessen the proper response to a serious fire. “It won’t work for me,” he added, referring to services in St. Johns.
Kingman Schuldt, the Greater Naples fire chief (who oversees a $30 million, 14-station system), also addressed the commission. “I can tell you what has been a success for us,” he said. There were seven independent fire districts, an air[port authority and the countywide fire service, along with two independent districts. What worked, he said, was consolidating many of those services. There’s not necessarily been financial savings, he said, but the consolidation enabled adding another fire station and more equipment, without adding personnel costs. “You can maximize the dollars spent,” Schuldt said.
Schuldt, too, spoke against the jump-truck idea. “Our goal all along has been to increase staffing, not reduce it,” he said—a direct, if unintended, criticism of the Palm Coast plan. “Unless you work together and consolidate,” he said, “that’s where you’re going to realize those cost-savings.”
When it was Netts’s turn to speak, he said the county has not painted an accurate picture of the issue as Palm Coast sees it, and that the county will not understand Palm Coast’s issue until the two sides sit down, face to face, and discuss it. Palm Coast has been pressing for such a meeting. The county has been resisting. “There are a lot of nuances here that we need to talk about,” he said, putting it directly to the commission: set a joint meeting.
“I still don;t understand, it’s not been articulated to me what the problem is,” McLaughlin said. “If it’s efficiency they’re after,” he added, “consolidation is the answer.”
“If there is an issue,” Meeker said, at least an issue that should be put before the public, “consolidation is the issue.”