On Monday, renovations began at Fire Station 22 on Palm Coast Parkway, Palm Coast’s oldest station, which the city inherited from the county. The $100,000 renovations are intended to extend the life of the nearly 40-year-old station by a few years, as the city has no money to build a new station right now, either there or elsewhere.
The renovations will not affect services, especially not the much-used county ambulance service out of that station: the rescue unit will be stationed at the nearby community center during the day. At night county crews will be at Station 24, on Palm Harbor Parkway. They will return to Station 22 when renovations are completed in about eight weeks. City fire crews normally stationed at 22 have been shifted temporarily to Station 21 by Kohl’s, off Belle Terre Parkway.
But the renovation plans were cause for some new aggravation and conflict between the city and the county, which City Manager Jim Landon blamed on “rumors.” That was disingenuous. Landon and the Palm Coast City Council were exclusively responsible for those “rumors.” And the county was not inventing what the “rumors” were based on: the city’s explicit desire to see county ambulance crews out of Station 22 permanently. That desire has not waned, even if its likelihood has. And it has further exposed a city attitude, reflected by some council members, that placed a higher premium on turf than services.
“We don’t have anything to say about the ambulance service, that’s their call, it’s their plan, it’s their strategy,” council member Bill McGuire said in May, “so that’s not my problem, how you deal with your ambulances. I’m concerned with how I can help my firefighters.”
“What I’m saying is that if that’s the best place for the ambulances to be for the citizens, that’s more important,” fellow-council member Jason DeLorenzo, who is running for a county commission seat, retorted. Again and again during that discussion, however, what was best for citizens appeared to be the lesser priority.
The county was also put off by another consequence of the renovations. While Landon, describing the renovations to the city council, spoke of improving and modernizing accommodations, he mentioned that the city’s lieutenant in the fire house would have his or her own bunk room after the renovations. But he only mentioned in roundabout ways that the lieutenant’s room would take the place of the bunk room currently used by the county’s rescue (or ambulance) personnel, thus sending county staffers to a communal bunk room.
The city can do with its station what it pleases, and intramural issues between firemen wearing one uniform or another are ultimately of little concern to residents who, at the receiving end, expect prompt and quality services regardless who’s delivering them. Nevertheless, the county was miffed in light of past instances, before 2009, when county and city crews had issues at city fire stations, with city crews “playing games with housing,” in the words of County Administrator Craig Coffey.
Last week city and county administrations and fire chiefs met and worked out the main issues surrounding the renovation. That same evening Landon reported to the council that the matter was resolved.
“It’s amazing how rumors get things stirred up, and when they hear the facts, it’s like, oh, well then, that’s OK,” Landon said. “They were under the understanding we weren’t going to let their paramedics come back after the remodeling, which wasn’t the case at all. The station right now has five firefighters-EMT in it. When we get finished it will still have five bunks. It’s going to be rearranged, kitchen is going to be different, the lieutenant is going to have his office-bunk area, and whether you’re county or city you’re going to be in the bunk room. They were very comfortable with that. That’s not the rumors they heard. They heard we weren’t going to let them come back in.”
A look at the record provides a clearer perspective on how the issue emerged, and how the city’s tone, not the county’s, determined the course of this latest of many conflicts undermining the cohesion of city-county relations.
Landon first unveiled the renovation plans to the council during a workshop in early May. It was a straight-forward presentation that left out some of the subtler turf issues, focusing more on long-term hopes of staying in the station another 10 years. The county had been pressing for more details on the plans. But Landon, who would later blame the county for not agreeing to a meeting until June 7, told the council that there was “no reason to get into those details until we get a green light from city council.” He got the green light.
At the time, the county was well aware of the plan to mingle its crews with the city’s post-renovation. But it had no idea of what would happen next—at a subsequent city council meeting, when McGuire and council member Steven Nobile, at times echoed by Landon and, more distantly, by Netts, spoke of their hopes to see the county leave Station 22.
The discussion began with a “seriously rhetorical” question by McGuire, who wanted to know whether the county was contributing to renovation dollars. It is not. McGuire at first appeared skeptical only of the city’s plan to band-aid the station. But the cramped quarters were also a concern.
“That’s key I think here, in addressing Mr. McGuire’s concerned about the cramped conditions,” Nobile said. “If we can fix this station up and move the EMS people out, that would be a much more suitable fire station for our firefighters.”
“I agree,” McGuire said.
“And would really extend the life of that station dramatically,” Nobile said. “We don’t want to build another fire station so we can house EMS. County EMS.”
Landon said Station 24 further north was built with more room for everyone, suggesting that it would be a better fit for the county’s ambulance crews—and address a city objective: “It also would accomplish one of our goals, and that is to get an ambulance that serves both the high-volume area, the C Section and the F Section where it is, but also would get it closer to the northern section of the community. All those things we have been encouraging. Cannot require or dictate, but we are taking the position that we’re remodeling this, that it would still accommodate their crews, but we’re not designing around their crews. We’re trying to make this station more functional with the lieutenant office, which is a bunk room, versus having a separate area, a separate room that’s made just for two people. That’s just not very functional. So I think we’re trying to address those. We’re hoping to encourage the county operation and personnel to move up to 24. During the remodeling, they’re going to have to make some changes, so maybe that’s a good time to see how that works at 24. Maybe they’ll decide to stay. Those are the conversations we need to have.”
Historically, the city has never told the county where it had to place its EMS operations. “I guess we could, because it’s our stations. But we as staff , we’re not trying to make them do anything at this point, we’re trying to be cooperative, but still have a more functional, comfortable fire station.”
Landon, in other words, was clearly tying the renovation to cramping out county crews, but he recognized that he couldn’t push the county out outright. Except during the renovation period.
“Like Mr. McGuire I don’t want to sound ugly here,” Nobile said, “but we can just tell them No, you’re not coming back, so you’d better get comfortable where you go. So do it now while you have to move anyway because of the construction, and get comfortable.”
“If that’s your goal, then say you’ll approve it subject to the county not moving back in, and then we can proceed accordingly,” Landon said.
“OK. That’s what I’m saying,” McGuire said. He made a motion to actually require the county to move out after the renovation.
Netts cautioned that the county had its ambulance at Station 22 for strategic reasons, though he downplayed the evidence behind that assumption: “That may or may not be true, I’ve not looked at the details,” Netts said of the county’s contentions. He went on in similarly backhanded terms: “If the comfort of their employees is of less importance to them than this strategic placement, then they will choose to stay where they are. I don’t want to be in a position where we say to the county, ‘You can’t do something.’ Because all that’s going to do is perpetuate the strife, the ill will that seems to exist between the county Board of County Commissioners and the City Council. I would much rather talk to them, negotiate [with] them, here’s an option.”
Then McGuire got irked and again pushed the turf issue: “OK, this is our fire station, we built it, we maintain it, we populate it,” he said. (Actually, the county built it.) “Would you please move your EMS people to another station. But if you say no, we’ll just roll over and accept it. Because that’s what we’ve done until now. I don’t want to play hardball either, but this is our property, our city and our firehouse.”
Landon proposed a compromise: During construction the county would have to move out, but then “only allow them back in if the county can present [an] argument, a kind of logistical, operations argument, that city council would approve, saying yes you can move back in at night, because you’ve convinced us from an operational standpoint, it’s important, and put the burden on them to say that they want to come back in, and you can decide at that point if they give you the justification. In the meantime we’ll try to work together to come up with something that’s acceptable to everybody so there isn’t any of this debate going on.”
McGuire liked the idea and withdrew his motion. In the end, however, on DeLorenzo’s move, the council formally approved only going ahead with renovations, no conditions attached. The Landon compromise wasn’t part of the motion. But Netts told him he had his “marching orders” to work put a compromise with the county.
On June 1, Coffey, the county administrator, sent Landon a long letter annotating the council’s discussion (and errors, as the county sees them), asking for clarifications about the city’s renovation plans, and reminding him that ambulance services “are an equally critical life safety component for all Flagler County residents and make up the majority of 911 calls. Subsequently, a smooth transition of any changes to our services must be carefully planned to avoid devastating outcomes, unfortunately that takes time and communication.”
The letter chided the manager for not providing requested information, then went on to explain the strategic necessity of keeping an ambulance crew at Station 22, where an ambulance has been stationed since 1989. “Palm Coast Parkway is a major roadway (wide and fast) that allows rescue vehicles to reach all neighborhood entrances in a minimal amount [of] time,” Coffey wrote, “as well as quickly interconnect with other major roadways such as Colbert Lane, Old Kings Road, Florida Park [Drive], I-95, Belle Terre and U.S. 1.” Placing the ambulance permanently at Station 24 would place it 2.8 miles away on “a narrow, congested, two-lane residential street, with a 30 mph speed limit. This will effectively delay our response on every call by more than 5.6 minutes (2.8 miles x 30 mph), not including traffic lights, congestion and other timing issues.”
Five days later, Coffey wrote again, making his own suggestions (including proposing that the city donate Station 22 back to the county, just as the county had donated it to the city), while the city could build a new station on Colbert. That’s not about to happen. The June 7 meeting finally took place, and the two sides agreed to move ahead with moves, renovations and move back to Station 22.
“They were very comfortable with that,” Landon said, summarizing the meeting to the council. “That’s not the rumors they heard. They heard we weren’t going to let them come back in.”
Nobile corrected him: “Well, I think that came from the discussion we had at one of our workshops, where we kind of said, could we ask them if they would move.”
Landon agreed—as he almost always does, when contradicted by a council member—but went on to make clear that the matter is still chafing at city priorities: “The fact of the matter is,” Landon said, “many ambulances, particularly the private ambulance companies, they don’t have a station they’re stationed out of. They park in parking lots and wherever.” Still, he said, “once they heard the facts and the options we gave them, there was no objection at all from their standpoint.”