It’s back: the Flagler Beach Fire Department is requesting approval of a $546,000 fire truck to replace its 25-year-old Engine 111, “deemed unreliable for day-to-day usage,” according to the fire department. The commission this time is more readily receptive.
The city would buy the truck with $406,759 accumulated over the last few years for the purpose, and with $63,000 expected from a pair of developers as part of their development agreements. The remaining balance would be $76,574. The earmarked fire reserve is drawn from half-cent sales tax revenue intended for infrastructure. Because of the annual allocation into the reserve fund, the city is in a better place now than it was last year to make the buy.
The fire truck will not be brand new. It’s a demonstration model with 3,000 miles on it. It will save the city between $20,000 and $25,000. “It was just a technique I picked up from another community and just sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good and it worked,” Whitson said of going with a demo model when he explained the purchase at the workshop. He’d questioned Pace on whether the city had to custom-build the truck.
But as in 2016 and again in 2020, when fire-truck purchases were floated, the proposal is drawing some opposition, some of it intimating (again) that the city should consider consolidation with county fire services. (The idea goes back years, if not decades, but has never won support from a majority of commissioners, and isn’t about to from the current commission). Opposition is coming mainly not at meetings of the commission, where the truck has hardly been discussed, but through social media and emails from constituents and a former city commissioner either to Bobby Pace, the city fire chief, to William Whitson, the city manager, or to commissioners.
The proposed purchase is on the Flagler Beach City Commission’s agenda Thursday evening–ahead of the commission’s final budget workshop next week. But the brewing public response could possibly delay the buy pending a workshop. On Tuesday Whitson suggested in an email to the commission “the possibility of having a workshop on the fire truck, so the public understands how we are operating now, and what we would use the new vehicle to do.” The move followed rising pressure from public questions, though by today he may have changed his mind.
“From my point of view, the questions being asked are all important for the public to understand,” Whitson wrote Pace this morning. “However, the Bottom line is every discussion is oriented to ‘operational matters’. While there is nothing wrong with explanations and discussions to better inform the public, it really boils down to trust in professionals. I trust that you and the Dept. professionals who run calls every day to know what kind of equipment you need to do your job.” He said fire truck issues have been discussed in the community “for years,” but the current proposal presents an opportunity “to get a 15% discount on a quality piece of equipment needed by the Dept. to do your job. I think, given the severity of this Pandemic and the potential for future disaster scenario’s we should proceed ahead.” (Pace’s possible exposure to Covid may also play a role in the delay, depending on his test outcomes.)
Fire truck requests have a scorching history before the Flagler Beach City Commission, though this particular commission has two new members who’ve never been through the inferno. That helps explain why the commission discussion this time around was swifter and smoother: commissioners, with one exception, gave their go-ahead during a budget workshop last month, setting the groundwork for Thursday’s possible vote.
The Fire Department first proposed buying a new fire pumper in the spring of 2020, a few months ahead of the normal budget process. The proposal quickly ran into a few problems, not least of which its timing with the pandemic’s first wave, when the commission was meeting by zoom and the public had no serious chance of being heard in large numbers. The proposal lacked a few details, and commissioners’ memories were still fresh with the brawl over the previous fire-truck purchase in 2014-15. That one took 18 months to make its way from controversy to delivery. To get there it scaled petitions against the purchase and organized opposition that included none other than Rick Belhumeur, who gained public exposure and used it to get elected to the commission, without opposition–six days before the city took delivery of the contested truck. The $568,000 “quint” (so-called because of its versatility: it has five significant firefighting capabilities) has been in service since.
Then-Commissioner Kim Carney had led the opposition from her seat on the commission. She’s at it again from beyond the commission. “As a commissioner in 2014 I tried to stop the purchase of the quint and was unsuccessful, as you know it takes 3 votes,” Carney wrote Whitson Monday in a lengthy email. “I am not opposed to the need for a fire squad in Flagler Beach on S. Flagler Ave. I am opposed to what they are telling you. You are a very smart man and I am sure you have had to cut through the weeds on many purchases in your career. Please pull this item from Thursday night’s agenda. More time needs to be taken for this purchase. I understand the purchase is not going to happen unless the budget is approved but preliminarily it is better to hold off until all the information is out there.”
Meanwhile it appears Carney had openly discussed her stance on Facebook–as residents are wont to do when they seize on an issue. Whitson bristled: “I am stunned and rather mystified as to why you put information all over facebook without speaking to me first? I thought we were on better terms, but, I guess not,” he wrote her an hour after her email. “Too bad that we could not speak before you placed political pressure on my plate as if there was not enough on my to do list at this point already.” (The next day Pace responded to Carney in a point-by-point approach, in an email to Whitson. See it in the comments below.)
But Belhumeur, too, is raising questions about the purchase. “I just went through this for the last fire truck, and then we were told that we wouldn’t need more people, and we ended up with more people,” he said during the workshop. “Now we have nine firefighters but we need three frontline trucks. I just can’t understand that–why we need two reserve trucks when we only have three firefighters on shift.”
“Because you’re operating at 365, seven days a week,” Whitson said, not quite answering the question. “It’s a 24-hour cycle, car wrecks happen at 2 a.m., on Sunday mornings, I mean, these are the kinds of things you just got to be able to respond to the different situations that get thrown at you and there’s no time off.”
“They’ve been putting money aside for that for quite some time, they’re going to get extra money from these two developments, of course it won’t be until they apply for permits until we get that money,” Belhumeur said today. “The part I just don’t get is why they need three fire trucks. I just don’t understand why they need three, front-line, fully equipped fire engines. The other part that bothers me is we did not get good feedback from the residents. We had a 10-minute discussion during a budget workshop nobody comes to–very few come to. I just don’t think the transparency is there to put the cart in front of the horse and commit to something that’s not in the budget yet.”
Pace addressed the question in an email to Whitson: “The question has been posed many times of why does the department require 3 frontline fire apparatus with the majority of time only staffing 3 firefighters. What the department is attempting to accomplish through a true depreciation/replacement plan is also preservation for fire apparatus,” Pace wrote. “The benefit in purchasing Ladder 11 cannot be understated. There have been many calls since 2015 that have required high angle access, ventilation operations, and elevated water streams. In buying a new fire engine/pumper, this truck would become the department’s primary unit, however the accessibility of Ladder 11 would not change.” He outlined a few technical details and added: “Unfortunately, even with a quality preventative maintenance program, there have been times when a couple of units are in need of repair. In these cases, crews must have a reserve truck to move to. One final point is the availability of additional water supply on back-up apparatus. The department does utilize some volunteer members as driver/operators and in the event that additional water supply was required at a scene, those volunteers can respond with a reserve truck.”
Meanwhile, Whitson and the commission have received a fair share of emails asking for a delay in the purchase, some of them with attached bullet points outlining issues and potential savings (caution: the document has not been fact-checked). “I previously reached out to each commissioner and our mayor to request you consider doing a study to determine if it would be beneficial to our city [to] merge with the Flagler County Fire Department,” Donna Schneider wrote commissioners, attaching the document. “Several of you replied that you would be willing to discuss [it] with the City Manager once thing settled down. I have never heard anything back about a discussion taking place. Instead, you are now planning to take a vote on purchasing a new fire truck.”
Kare Padgett, who’s taken a lead role in the opposition, asked earlier this week that the agenda item be “tabled for another day.”
“It is no secret that I personally do not feel the residents of our city can afford a ’boutique fire department’ or that the cost is simply not sustainable for the residents (who mainly are comprised of retirees) to support such an endeavor,” Padgett wrote. “That being said; in light of our current economic situation and the status of our society as a whole as a result of the Covid pandemic, to approve such an expense at this time is not prudent.” The email’s identical wording was used by several other residents who signed their name to it, so it isn’t clear who wrote the original.