Fla. county balks at giving fire-EMS district vehicle money

The dept. is seeking to purchase a $150,000 ambulance, but the county said there are no feasible funds available to do so

By David Goodhue
The Reporter

TAVERNIER, Fla. — Monroe County says it has spent tens of millions of dollars on Upper Keys projects in recent years and cannot afford to contribute much more money to a fund that pays for trucks for Key Largo’s volunteer fire department.

The department is scheduled to replace two trucks in the next two fiscal years at a cost of more than $900,000. The Key Largo Fire-Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District, which oversees the budget for the fire department and the Ambulance Corps, also plans to buy a new ambulance this year for $150,000.

To help with the costs, district Commissioner Bob Thomas was hoping Monroe County would commit to contributing $150,000 a year to the district’s vehicle replacement fund — and another $150,000 to install fire hydrants throughout the special taxing district — for five years.

Thomas said that for the last two fiscal years, the county gave the district $250,000. “It has been very helpful,” he said.

Thomas proposed the money come from the county’s 1-cent sales tax fund, of which about $3 million a year comes from the Key Largo area. The county said no.

“It’s a county fund,” County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy said. “Just because the money is raised in the Upper Keys doesn’t mean it has to be spent here.”

Murphy said she will continue to lobby her four colleagues on the County Commission for the fire hydrant money, but she cannot commit to giving the district money to buy new vehicles. County Administrator Roman Gastesi said he will recommend the County Commission approve $150,000 a year for five years to pay for more fire hydrants in Key Largo.

“Nothing is set in stone yet,” Gastesi wrote in an email. “We will be discussing the capital budget during the [commission] budget hearings in September.”

This leaves the district searching for ways to replenish the vehicle replacement fund, which stands at more that $461,000 right now but will be down to about $311,000 after the ambulance is purchased.

The fire department and Ambulance Corps, and the five commissioners, are looking for items to remove from the budget so more money can be moved to the fund. The district is capped at how much it can tax its constituents, so raising taxes would not really help. When the district was created in 2005, the founders stipulated that the property tax rate for residents inside the district would not pay more than $1 per every $1,000 of assessed value for fire and ambulance service.

There are two more public meetings scheduled before the commissioners set next fiscal year’s rate, Sept. 7 and Sept. 18, but the tentative rate is about 91 cents.

One area Commissioner George Mirabella wants to cut is the Firefighter 1 course, a basic training for new recruits, which is offered in-house. Between equipment, instructor time and instructional materials, the course costs the district about $15,000 a year. Mirabella said new recruits should have to attend the county’s fire academy in Marathon. He said since Key Largo is part of unincorporated Monroe County, its residents shouldn’t have to pay twice for a firefighter training academy.

His colleagues disagreed.

“I still think Firefighter 1 should be offered here in Key Largo,” Thomas said.

Advocates of the in-house training say it is a great recruitment tool to attract local candidates who can use the training to find paid work after serving on the Key Largo department for a year.

“The Firefighter 1 program is the best of both worlds,” said Key Largo firefighter Eric Neitzer. “From a business standpoint, which is what we’re running, it makes the most sense.”

The 2015-16 fiscal year tax rate is 82 cents, and the rate needed to collect the same amount of property tax revenue as this fiscal year would be 87 cents. The commissioners said they do not want to impose the maximum tax rate.

“Hopefully, we’re going to end up some place in the middle,” said board Chairman Tony Allen.

Copyright 2016 The Reporter

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