Flagler Beach City Commissioner Steve Settle this evening hosted a “town hall” meeting compelled by a minor controversy over a plan by the city administration and the fire department to buy a new, $600,000 fire truck and retire a tower truck that only last year the fire department said had a few good years left in it.
The meeting in the main chamber at City Hall drew 37 people, though only about half were interested members of the public. The rest included four city commissioners, City Manager Bruce Campbell and Police Captain Matt Doughney, nine firefighters and volunteers, and two reporters. Still, it was a much larger turn-out than the commission’s strategic session, where the fire truck replacement notion was first presented, or the typical budget workshop session, which usually draws only a handful of people, if any.
Settle decided to hold the meeting, he said, for transparency’s sake, though Commissioner Kim Carney—who has been critical of plans to buy a new fire truck—had hoped the commission would hold a more formal workshop on the matter. The town hall meeting was, if not a compromise, at least an attempt to blunt what criticism had been leveled at the purchase plan, and, in Settle’s words, “if there’s anything nefarious going on, hopefully we’ll learn.”
“The issue we’re dealing with tonight is, is there something else we can do,” he said, and “possible extra steps and determine whether or not it’s worth the investment,” reducing risk “in sufficient quantities to justify those expenditures.” Settle later noted that when Pace was hired as the fire department’s captain, it was his responsibility to give the city commission a “head’s up on things. Let’s understand what’s coming at us before we go into budget session.”
“This is not Captain Pace’s wish list, if you will,” Settle said, contradicting, in this case, the wording of the presentation as well as the city manager’s intentions: both Campbell and Pace have made very clear that it is their wish to have the city buy a new truck this year. And Tuesday’s meeting was clearly choreographed as a way for the fire department to make its case based on its stated agenda—with three lieutenants and the fire captain seated at the elevated dais, where city commissioners usually sit, and Settle to the side, with the audience, including the remaining commissioners, below. Members of the public were free to speak their mind, but in three-minute increments in answer to the firefighters’ presentations.
On the other hand, the meeting generated none of the sort of red-hot passions that have occupied the city commission in recent years when such things as allowing dogs on the beach, allowing dogs in restaurants, allowing fires on the beach or banning surfers from surfing too closely to the pier have generated. The audience was interested, courteous, but far from contentious. The signal to the city commissioners may be that as its decision to keep the fire department last year, its decision to endorse the $600,000 truck buy may be seen as more administrative, if not routine, than political.
“The whole tone tonight was very positive, very informative,” Campbell said. “It was factual, transparent, just everything that Commissioner Settle said tonight he hoped it would be.” But it must still be run through the budget process, starting July 8. “Once that whole look-see is done, the commission will rule and hopefully rule in favor of the purchase. I believe it’s a good combination of technology, the ladder aerial, the pumper,” and other benefits. “I’m behind our guys and the fire department, I worked with them closely to bring this forward, but until it’s over it’s not over.”
Capt. Bobby Pace began the presentation by going through the briefing he gave the city commission last month, when he first proposed the purchase of the new truck. The briefing recapped Pace’s thinking about originally keeping Tower 11, the city’s tower truck, in service a whole longer, until he became convinced that replacing it with a smaller but more versatile quint, and one less prone to break-downs, would be more effective. (See the full presentation below.) The presentation outlined costs and ways of payments, including pulling $200,000 from an existing fund created four years ago for just such replacement, and the rest from
Lt. Stephen Cox also presented a report to answer various questions raised about the prospective buy of a “quint,” the sort of truck so named because of its versatility, as it provides five vital firefighting functions, one of them being its aerial capabilities. “The purpose of purchasing a quint is to fully replace Tower 11 and Engine 11,” he said. “The quint would be the primary response truck carrying approximately 450 gallons of water,” with a 75-foot ladder that would be able to tackle all the city’s two- and three-level structures and be sufficient to allow for rescues. “This is an opportunity to replace an engine and a tower with one.”
“We cannot always rely on other agencies,” he said, as an engine from the county’s fire station at the Hammock would take 20 minutes to reach a fire at the Nautilus, the condo high-rise at Flagler Beach’s south end of town. To dramatize his point, Cox asked for a moment of silence, which stretched to one minute. He described it as “one minute in a non-emergency situation,” and that 20 times that amount would equate to the time the city would have to wait for an emergency at the Nautilus. Tower 11, he said, has responded to over 80 calls since 2011.
A resident raised questions about those 80 calls, wondering what percentage were fire calls as opposed to fire alarms and other, non-fire-related calls. The firefighters could not provide the percentage, suggesting to the resident that he could get the figures if he went to the station. The resident, however, said that even 80 calls since 2011 works out to one and a half uses per month—not much to justify a new truck’s cost, as opposed to maintaining the tower truck. Pace, however, said that every time the tower truck goes out, it returns with a need for repairs.
By then was the floor had been opened to the public, which showed itself alternately supportive of the proposal and calmly critical.
“Think what you lose if you don’t help these men help you, now. We can’t keep putting it off,” one resident said, lavishing praise on the fire department in a brief statement. Another resident said he wished the city doesn’t make the same mistake as it did when it bought the tower truck, which was old, needed tires, and couldn’t even negotiate the city’s streets well. “We don’t need a ladder to put out a dumpster fire,” he said, “that would be absurd, and when it coms to the high rises, high rises are best fought from the inside.” (That may be the case from a firefighter’s tactical perspective, one firefighter said, but people inside the building typically rush for windows and balconies in fire, which then requires rescues.) A third man said he sees the need, “I’m all in favor of it.”
Regina Clemens, resident and property owner for 17 years, “I’ve often wondered why we pay double for fire protection,” she said. But she said 17 percent of tax dollars are allocated to the fire department from the general fund, with Flagler County taxes accounting for 17 additional percent. She said she’s paying for protection from two sources, making the expense for a new fire truck “not warranted.”
Settle said Jane Mealy, another city commissioner, had asked County Administrator Craig Coffey last year whether—if Flagler Beach were to merge its department with the county’s—the county could get its trucks to the city as quickly. Coffey, according to Settle, said: “Absolutely not.” That’s why, Settle said, the city decided to keep its department.
If that conversation ever took place, it was not part of the public discussion last year when the city declined to merge with the county, as Coffey would have been unlikely to be so categorical, since a county plan to provide services for the city was, in fact, produced, but the plan included the county occupying a station in Flagler Beach—making a response to city fires as immediate, if not faster, than the current arrangement. Coffey’s presentation was provided in an open meeting of the county commission. Coffey never, in those meetings, said that the county could not provide immediate service to the city, provided the county had a station in the city.
“How long down the road before the next one?” Rick Belhumeur, a city resident and a critic of the city’s approach, asked the firefighters.
“I know this sounds like a big push and a high request coming from this department,” Pace said, but he said that the conversation won’t happen again for 15 to 20 years. A pumper replacement in five or six years would cost less—more along the lines of $300,000 to $400,000.
“I just don’t understand the absolute urgency,” Belhumeur said after the meeting. (He’d been left at the podium, unrecognized to speak at the end of the meeting by Settle, after Stan Drescher, the city’s poet laureate, had read his second poem in honor of the firefighters.) He said he will still try to keep the city from using infrastructure dollars to pay for the majority of the truck’s cost, and try to delay the purchase a year or two.
A little over an hour into the meeting, volunteer or paid city firefighters began taking the dais, either making statements in praise of the department or raising rhetorical questions that made the same point, and suggesting that the meeting’s substance had run its course.
But the fire department got its strongest endorsement from former city commissioner John Feind, who, toward the end of the meeting, took the dais to give the matter some history. He declined to run again a year and a half ago, after several terms on the commission.
“Four years ago the city knew and decided that they needed to replace a pumper truck, that’s why they started saving the money,” Feind said. “What I’m seeing tonight is an alternative not only to saving the pumper which we knew we had to replace, but also to replacing the ladder truck, which no one dared to think about” at the time. “By spending this $600,000 we would actually be replacing both the vehicles, we would have a new ladder truck and a new pumper truck.” He noted that most people are spending $90 a month for cell phone service or cable service, “so if we’re getting our fire department for $90, we’re getting a real bargain.”
When Settle asked if anyone else wanted to speak and no appeared to get up (a couple of people did, eventually), Mealy, the commissioner, got up to give ladder trucks her endorsement–and essentially seal the matter: Settle is a clear supporter of the new truck. Mealy appeared to be tonight. And Commissioner Marshall Shupe, who also serves asa volunteer firefighter, is a champion of such purchases. That’s the three votes the department needs for its truck, which by 7 p.m. appeared to be an all but done deal, even as Settle finished the meeting by saying that “the final verdict is still out.”