Four and a half years ago the Flagler Beach Fire Department took delivery of a new, multi-purpose $568,000 “quint,” a combination ladder and pumper truck. It was a long, 18-month journey for the truck and the department, both of whom ran into strong opposition, especially from a city commissioner, the mayor and a resident who drummed up a 650-name petition in opposition of the purchase. In the end, the commission voted 4-1 for the truck.
The public opposition he led helped Rick Belhumeur get elected to the city commission. Now he’s part of the charge against the latest proposal by the fire department to buy a new, $571,000 truck, though he may have a harder time doing so than in 2014 and 2015: Kim Carney, the one commissioner who voted against the previous purchase–and who is opposed to the new one–left the commission in March to run for the county commission. And this time opponents won’t have the opportunity to fill the commission chamber or even voice their opposition except in written comments. Not yet, anyway.
That may have at least a little to do with the timing of the fire department’s request, outside of the normal budget process: with Carney gone and at least a few more weeks before in-person meetings resume, it affords the department–and City Manager Larry Newsom, who is behind the purchase–a window of opportunity that significantly minimizes the optics of opposition and a repeat of the “quint” odyssey, which included special and community meetings, a lot of public acrimony and even a then-commissioner challenging Belhumeur to a fight after a meeting.
But Jane Mealy, who chairs the city commission and has always been a strong supporter of the fire department, its purchases and its expansion–and continues to be–says the proposal, while sound in principle, may not be ripe for action Thursday.
Mealy does not want that sort of issue dealt with through a Zoom commission meeting–online, rather than in person–when the public and commissioners and the mayor can’t all be present. “It’s better when we’re together and the public can actually be there and say what they want to say,” Mealy said today. “I’m not sure that this is the best time. I’m not sure we have to wait until budget time, but I’d rather wait until we can sit around and talk about it, not in a Zoom meeting.” With the experience of the “quint” purchase still freshly in mind, Mealy has also asked Fire Chief Bobby Pace to provide more details and be prepared to educate the public.
That sort of history and building opposition may also explain the tension around this new proposal: Newsom was unusually defensive when asked questions about the truck purchase in an interview this afternoon, inaccurately accusing Belhumeur of taking his case to the media with misinformation rather than speaking with him directly (the two have a meeting scheduled Wednesday). Belhumeur was eventually interviewed, but he did not “take his case to the media.” He noted in a text that the proposal was on Thursday’s agenda, by which time the story was already planned.
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Given Flagler Beach’s history with fire trucks, it’s the sort of proposal that would result in advance media coverage regardless, whether it was generating opposition or not, though by today opposition had already built considerably on social media and in emails to commissioners. Mealy said she’d spent much of Monday and Tuesday contending with the issue by phone and on Facebook, where she says the opposition has ramped up on several pages, often rehashing the same arguments brought out during the “quint” debate, often confusing facts and issues and making unfair claims about the city’s motives. Those include accusations of underhandedness on the city’s part in particular.
“We have money in the infrastructure surtax, and that’s what it’s intended for–capital purchase,” Mealy said. “So I don’t see it as being underhanded at all, and am fairly resentful that people are using that word. You may have only seen it once, but it’s been on Facebook several times.”
The city clerk by early this week had received 15 pages of emails almost entirely in opposition, asking for their emails to be read at Thursday’s meeting. Some of the emails are caustic and question the city’s motives. As a whole, the emails suggest the city manager and the fire chief may be underestimating the political dimensions of the proposal’s timing in the context of the coronavirus emergency, and may be a cautionary marker to local governments exploring capital improvements.
“We do not need another truck for Flagler Beach,” resident William Petty wrote the city clerk Monday. “We have local agreements in place for necessary additional trucks needed for a local fire. We have Palm Coast and we have Flagler County available for assistance. In fact, we ought to be recommending a merger of the fire departments as it is.” In a preview of the likely tenor of the opposition, Petty then cited the tax and utility rate increases of the last few years as another reason to oppose the truck, though he was also repeating a misconception almost certain to be repeated. The dollars for the fire truck are taken from the city’s share of a county sales tax surplus, not from property taxes or any rate-associated fund.
“The city manager and fire chief are making an obvious attempt to end run the budget process,” resident Karen Joiner wrote. She said the fire department’s budget has doubled in the past five years (It was $521,000 in 1014-15, it is $1.123 million is the current budget, though the department has added personnel since), “and that doesn’t take into account the purchase of the last fire truck just 5 years ago. Our small community of 5,000 people is in the midst of our worst recession and unemployment in over 50 years… we cannot afford, nor do we need, a new fire truck.”
Paul Harrington, who ran for the city commission earlier this year, wrote commissioners: “We Flagler Beach resident covet our own Fire Department or at least the idea. Maybe it’s that we feel in control and not having to bow to the county. At what cost are we willing to go to keep that luxury? The surtax may not come from resident taxpayers pockets directly however it does come as a result of the community we support. We have every right to be involved in that process if not we might as well join the County fire department which we already pay for.”
Speaking for herself and her husband, Kare Padgett said she was “very concerned about what can only be perceived as a back handed way to conduct city business.” (See the emails here or below.)
Flagler Beach Fire Chief Bobbie Pace declined through his captain to speak on the issue before presenting it to the commission on Thursday. According to his memo to commissioners, the fire department is asking commissioners at their meeting Thursday to approve the purchase of a Pierce fire truck and 75 percent of its equipment for $571,000 to replace 24-year-old Engine 111, bought when Robbie Creal was chief. Five years ago in a presentation to commissioners, Pace had discussed even then the possibility of retiring Engine-111, but concluded “after further review” that the truck could be kept on a few more years. “Retaining E-111 as a reserve unit means the Engine would be used minimally,” he said at the time.
He wrote this week that Engine 111 was “completely depreciated and holds no monetary value,” though neither he nor Newsom say the truck is not functional. Newsom said today the truck was “absolutely” functional. “It’s not critical,” he said of the truck purchase. “I think it’s a good financial move,” describing it as “a much better truck at a much better deal.”
“In keeping with the depreciation schedule, the department has reached the point of removing Engine 111 from service,” Pace wrote. The city has been setting aside $75,000 a year since the purchase of the “quint” to afford the next truck purchase. It has amassed $306,759 in the fund, drawn from the sales surtax revenue. That leaves a balance of $263,979 the city will have to pull from the fund, which stands at just under $1 million.
The city did likewise when it bought the “quint,” which cost just under $600,000: it had only a third of the needed money in the fire department’s reserve fund. The rest was taken out of the sales tax pot. Newsom says the purchase of the new truck shouldn’t wait until budget season because the city is being offered a “deal.” If it pays for the truck up front, it would get a $17,000. That discount is included in the $571,000 purchase price the department is submitting to city commissioners. Newsom said he did not think that the “deal” would be on the table if the city waited until after budget season.
The city would take delivery of the truck in late 2021.
“Why should I wait? We get a better deal right now, why should I wait?” a rather prickly Newsom said today, dismissing concerns about the sales tax fund. “We’v got a lot of things that’s taken care of, now is a good time to do it.” He said the fund would remain “solid” even after the purchase.
The fund’s revenue, however, has nosedived, as have all sales-tax supported funds across Florida, because of the on going recession. So the dollars will not get replenished as fast. “Does it cause me concern? yes,” Mealy said. “I’m one of those people who thinks we should have a nice cushion, a good size reserve, but then again, this is what it’s meant for, so it’s not like we’re taking funds from something else.” Mealy defended the city administration’s approach, again raising caution on only the timing. She said presenting the issue as a budget resolution and amendment is not a problem.
“I don’t manage the city poorly when it comes to the finances,” Newsom said. “I’m not putting the city in any type of financial situation, not at all. If I thought that was going to happen I wouldn’t make that decision.” He said Belhumeur hadn’t voted for any capital improvements in three years, a claim close to the mark, but not entirely: “Not totally,” Belhumeur said, recalling voting against city budgets in two of the last three years. “But very resistant, and in a lot of cases I voted against them.” Belhumeur and Newsom have often different, and neither hesitates to use strong language to express their differences. Today, Belhumeur said, “to me, budget time seems like a staff conspiracy.”
Belhumeur isn’t opposed to buying a new fire truck, but he’s opposed to the timing and the manner of the purchase proposal, he said. “If they wanted to do it that much quicker, then they should have approached the commission and asked for a larger amount each year, but not throw this out in the middle of the year. That’s my biggest problem with it,” Belhumeur said. The existing engine can stay on the road for now, he said. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Their only justification is that it’s old. They don’t like it anymore. And everything has to be a Cadillac.”
“This isn’t the time to do it,” Belhumeur continued. “That’s going to be my approach. We should wait until the money’s been gathered. We have three certified, totally capable firetrucks. Three certified fire trucks that are capable of putting out fires. We just had that fire what, three weeks ago, we gout three fire trucks but only one was on scene. I don’t know why the back-ups are so critical, especially a second back-up. I just don’t think it’s the right time. I just don’t like how these capital purchases are done outside the budget.”
Mealy said the pan falls in line with the city’s approach–to buy new capital equipment in a rotation, between departments, so there’s no repeat of such a case as the code enforcement inspector riding around in a truck whose floorboard was literally gone. But she concedes that the fire truck proposal is premature–if not by much. “There’s a lot to go into yet, I haven’t made a decision one way or the other yet,” Mealy said. “But Chief Pace needs to go into a lot more detail, and I hope people listen before they make up their mind, and I’m not sure this is the right time to do it.” She specified: by “time,” she means this period of virtual meetings.