Fire fee increase hits snag

Escambia administrator wants to delay decision

Sheila Ingram

Escambia County's administrator wants to delay a $25 annual increase in fire assessments that would have hired 25 more career firefighters in the next three years and added two new stations in a county plagued by fire deaths.

"I'll take the heat for it," said County Administrator George Touart, who plans to recommend tonight that commissioners back away from a plan to increase the fire fees.

Not everybody thinks delaying the increase is the best move in a county that saw 21 fire-related deaths in the last 19 months and eight so far this year.

"It was a complete shock and surprise to me," said County Fire Chief Ken Perkins.

He said the rate increase would have funded a training facility and two new fire stations - one near Mobile Highway and Massachusetts Avenue and the other near Kingsfield Road and U.S. 29.

District 2 Commissioner Tim Wright said he is unhappy about the decision.

"I don't think it's been decided yet. I'm still in favor of the increase," said District 1 Commissioner Cliff Barnhart.

Three commissioners - Wright, Barnhart and Marie Young of District 3 - said in recent budget hearings they favor the fee increase.

District 4 Commissioner Tom Banjanin and District 5 Commissioner Janice Gilley opposed the increase.

Some residents say a $25 jump per household is too much, too soon.

"The $25 is not an unbearable amount of money, but it was the percentage of the increase - that's a 50 percent increase," said Molino resident Bob Raede.

West Pensacola firefighter Gary Stevens said the rank and file should have been more involved in the decision. He believes more career firefighters unfortunately are the coming trend.

"We need more firefighters, and volunteers aren't exactly springing out of the woodworks," Stevens said. "If you can't get them to volunteer, you're almost going to have to pay them."

Touart is backing away from pursuing the hike because volunteer fire chiefs made it clear in a 15-1 vote at a recent meeting they do not want the fee increase. Fees would have jumped from $50 to $75 a year and would have raised $2.5 million for the departments.

County public safety officials have made an effort in recent years to beef up the ranks of career firefighters, since fewer people are willing to expend the time and volunteers aren't always available during daytime hours.

There are about 400 volunteers and 50 career firefighters in the county ranks.

The fee increase was part of a five-year plan for county departments.

"I'm not going to try and override his decision, but something needs to be done before a year from now," Wright said. "I think the five-year plan that was put together ... was a reasonable one."

Touart said there is too much discord among volunteers, who question where the money is going and complain some departments haven't received equipment promised them.

But the friction between paid and volunteer firefighters also has increased. The county departments historically have been all volunteer, and some fear the demise of a tradition more than 50 years old.

"We've asked the volunteers to form a committee to work with us on priorities as far as capital improvements and personnel requests are concerned," Touart said. "We had several differences of opinion on where the 25 new people would be placed.

"I would agree to work with the volunteer chiefs during the next year to come up with a solution."

Touart feels it's important volunteers are on board with plans to increase fire fees.

Cantonment Volunteer Fire Chief Jeff Bingle doesn't see the need for 25 more career firefighters for at least 10 years.

"We just thought they didn't need as many people on board in the short period of time they're looking at," Bingle said. "We felt we were kind of left out in exploring different avenues with the volunteers."

Perkins said he tried to get volunteer chiefs to support the five- year plan but was unsuccessful.

"It's going to affect some of the things we were trying to get accomplished," Perkins said. "We're already behind as far as fire protection goes, and we'll just be another year behind now."

Perkins said plans to move to more career firefighters have been endorsed by at least four major studies of the department.

He said two volunteer departments are expanding their coverage in an effort to prevent fire deaths, and he will work with the volunteer association to come up with ways to increase prevention and education programs.

Residents can call 595-HERO to get a free smoke detector installed as part of a county program.