Last Updated: 4:19 p.m.
Flagler County is ready to take over the Flagler Beach Fire Department, provide a higher level of service that would vastly improve the city’s fire insurance rating and lower property insurance rates, and net the city a $100,000 annual saving, not counting bigger savings when it comes time to pay for a new fire truck or other equipment.
Flagler Beach, however, is not interested. Not now. To hear Flagler Beach Commission Chairman Steve Settle, maybe not ever.
“The people I’ve talked to in Flagler Beach look at me and say, can you imagine Flagler Beach without its fire department? It’s been there since the beginning. How can we look at ourselves, how can we live with ourselves?” Settle told Flagler County commissioners during a meeting Monday on the county and city options regarding the fire department. “We’re going to retain our independence no matter what, and we’re going to vow that any changes in Flagler Beach are going to be ones that people in Flagler Beach approve.”
Settle’s defensiveness may be unnecessary. County commissioners strained to assure Flagler Beach that there’s no coup in the works. They have no interest in taking over the city’s services—unless asked. They made clear that they are willing to discuss consolidation, but only within parameters set by Flagler Beach.
“The ball is in your court to ask us what you need of us,” County Chairman Nate McLaughlin said.
Settle also conveyed to commissioners that his commission had actually made the decision not to go with any county plans at this time. “At our last budget workshop a week and a half ago we decided at this particular time we’re not going to go forward with asking for this help,” he said. But no such decision has formally been reached by Flagler Beach, and no such decision was reached during the workshop. Commissioners were in agreement to go with a new administrative plan for the fire department, which would eliminate the chief’s and assistant chief’s positions, and gave that nod during the workshop. But that was not equated with a rejection of the larger policy issue, at least not on the record.
Flagler Beach commissioners were interested in formally asking the county questions, and did, in what resulted in some 25 pages of answers that ranged from broad policy matters to specific requirements to be a fire chief, what rules control volunteer firefighters, and what it would take to bring Flagler Beach’s so-called ISO rating (the acronym stands for Insurance Service Office) down from its elevated 5. The county’s rating is a 3. The lower the rating, the better. The answer: better water availability and more training help. (See all the questions and answers below.)
The questions are telling as much for their candid answers as for the authors of the questions, as the tone and purpose of many questions reveal commissioners’ anxieties, interests and assumptions. The questions were prompted by Flagler Beach Commissioner Kim Carney’s interest in exploring consolidation. But Carney’s efforts have been blunted by a commission less interested in going that route, with Commissioner Marshall Shupe leading the charge against consolidation. Shupe is ostensibly a volunteer firefighter, but that’s in name only: he is the city’s fire marshal, he helps the fire police, and he is a solid presence at the city’s fire house. The commission has never questioned the conflicts.
“That’s why I’m kind of wondering why we’re going to go through this act of futility here,” McLaughlin said Monday at the beginning of what would turn into a 40minute discussion. “They’ve pretty much decided they’re going to hold their own and continue on the way they’re going, with minor adjustments. Why are we spending any time on it?”
County Administrator Craig Coffey referred to the formal questions, which have kept discussions alive and provided a more factual framework to the issue than previously available.
And it wasn’t quite futility, since the Flagler Beach commission hadn’t yet received the answers to the questions its members posed the county. That Q&A is still up for discussion once commissioners do get their answers.
“What we want to do is be able to offer assistance regardless of any outcome whether they want to join or not,” Coffey said. “I don’t know that we had the best relationship with the former chief. I think there was animosity there. I think we can do a lot better as far as closing that gap and helping them. And if they choose to join with us, we believe we can offer some major tangible and non-tangible benefits—a lot more than monetary, but increased response and all that kind of stuff.”
Significant distinctions between county and Flagler Beach services: the county’s paramedic crews provide advanced life support (ALS). Flagler Beach may provide only basic life support (BLS). The crude difference is that ALS crews can puncture a patient’s skin with syringes, BLS teams may not. The county also has a more advanced marine rescue unit, and provides advanced and various training.
Coffey submitted three options, including one that would dissolve the fire department and have Flagler Beach covered by county services without improvements—an option no one considers viable.
The option the county administration favors most from an organizational perspective is to take over the department, its facilities, equipment and staff. The county would maintain the higher level of service in place now, and but all necessary equipment in the future, assuming all liabilities. The annual cost to the city: $475,000. That compares with a current cost of $600,000.
Another option would entail the county absorbing the day-to-day operations of the fire department, but Flagler Beach would keep ownership of its facilities, fire trucks and other equipment. The annual cost to Flagler Beach: $469,000, for an annual saving of a little over $130,000.
Yet another option would lower the level of service somewhat, providing a dedicated advanced life support ambulance to the city but having a fire engine assigned to the barrier island as a whole, without guaranteed permanent coverage in the city. The city’s cost under that scenario would be $342,500 a year, saving the city $260,000 a year.
“The fear is,” Coffey said, “that they’ll get the service and they’ll charge us through the nose after that. The reality is, what you’re trying to do is offer some type of commitment to a price, and part of the cost of working together, consolidation, means we have to take some on the chin but not too much, so there’s a balance there. The question is, you’d always put some kind of cost of living adjustment along the way, or if gas went to $6 a gallon or something like that, for the higher level of service, they’d be paying it whether their fire department was in there or we were doing that same service.”
County Commissioner Barbara Revels summed up the commission’s impressions on the issue. “Coming from Flagler Beach I have two legs in this,” she said. “I want to represent my city and at the same time, county-wide. I would love to see us have Flagler County Fire fighting there because of the higher level of service, maybe a lower ISO rating, and hopefully lower the budget of Flagler Beach. But I understand what I have heard from Commissioner [Marshal] Shupe and others about—what if we aren’t happy, how do we recreate a division again? How do we go out and get that equipment? So I’m in favor of any one of these options that the city likes, if it were to ever happen.”
It was at the end of the discussion that Settle was invited to speak. “The opinion of Flagler Beach is there’s never anything wrong with getting facts,” he said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get facts. There’s never anything wrong with working with the county. We’ve always tried to do that in Flagler Beach, work closely to improve the way we do things and cut taxes when we possibly can so we’ll continue to do that. We will take a look at the options. We’ll probably come up with a couple of our own options, including passing at this time.”
Flagler Beach, Settle said, is “fiercely independent,” and would be retaining that independence regardless.
Note: the Q&A below is the final version the county sent to Flagler Beach, readied July 5; a previous edition posted here had been an unfinished draft.