Ormond Beach and Volusia County at odd over contract.

Daytona Beach News Journal

Fire turf battle leaves services in question
By LYDA LONGA (lyda.longa@news-jrnl.com)
Staff Writer
ORMOND BEACH -- It was supposed to be the model partnership -- a fire and emergency services agreement between Volusia County and the city of Ormond Beach that would benefit all, especially taxpayers looking for the most efficient response from public safety professionals.

But the perfect relationship is about to dissolve under the strain of financial pressures, and some say a turf mentality between firefighters and both the city and county. Left behind is a cloud of anger and resentment between the county and Ormond Beach, and firefighters from both local unions.

The contentiousness between the two governments has contributed to harsh finger-pointing. Ormond Beach fire officials have accused Volusia County administrators of being more concerned with the financial bottom line than the safety of citizens.

"I think the focus of public safety has been lost," said Ormond Beach Fire Chief Barry Baker. "The county is more concerned with money than they are with safety."

County officials say Ormond Beach used scare tactics to frighten the public when City Manager Isaac Turner and Baker went on a radio talk show recently to warn residents in the unincorporated areas that they might face a decline in their level of fire services when the county's firefighters regain the two fire stations that Ormond Beach now operates.

And while both governments continue to blame each other for the failed agreement, firefighters say the real question is whether residents living in unincorporated area outside Ormond Beach -- especially Ormond-by-the-Sea -- will receive efficient emergency services from the county.

But there is another question. And many firefighters and elected officials say it's perhaps the most important: Will Ormond Beach agree to enter into an automatic-first response contract with Volusia County once the current pact is broken?

That means the city would continue to respond automatically to incidents in unincorporated areas if the emergencies are closer to Ormond Beach's fire stations.

"Tension is a mild word for what's going on right now," said Ormond Beach Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Downs. "This is a very complex issue."

The contract between Ormond Beach and Volusia County -- signed in 1998 and supposed to last 10 years -- will officially end in October 2003.

At the time the agreement was signed, it was touted as a benefit to the county and the city because it would blend the fire services of both for the good of city and unincorporated county residents.

Ormond Beach firefighters would provide automatic response to emergencies in the unincorporated areas near the city so that residents in those sections would not have to wait for Volusia's fire units, which are farther away.

But at a tension-filled meeting on Aug. 15, the County Council voted 6-1 to end the pact with the city because no one could agree on a price tag for the services rendered by Ormond Beach.

The city claims it provides more firefighters and more equipment for every incident it responds to in the county and is demanding at least $400,000 for the wear and tear to its vehicles. The county balks at that figure and says the costs couldn't possibly be that high. They also accuse Ormond Beach of calculating their response times differently than the county does.

When talks between the two fire chiefs began to sour several months ago, Volusia County Manager Cindy Coto and Turner stepped in and began to discuss the terms of the agreement with help from their respective staffs.

The main sticking point was that the county wanted the $1.2 million-a-year contract reduced by $250,000, but Ormond Beach refused, saying they could pare it down only by $125,000.

The financial discord elicited stern letters between Coto and Turner as each attempted to state their elected officials' positions.

But in the end, the managers' negotiations also bombed, reaching an impasse in late July. That's when Turner asked the Volusia County Council for an audience at the Aug. 15 meeting to see if the issue could be resolved.

Before that meeting however, Turner and Baker went on two radio talk shows to discuss the matter. The city also sent out letters to about 20,000 residents in the unincorporated areas. The missives warned that fire services would change in the future, and not for the better.

Ormond Beach claimed that once the contract is broken and Volusia's firefighters become responsible for incidents in the unincorporated sectors, emergency services will suffer because the county will have to depend on backup from other units that are too far away.

The city also said that the county's fire engines are understaffed because they usually send only two firefighters to a scene, rather than three as Ormond Beach does.

"Our City Commission asked us to do this and we're just doing what we were asked to do -- inform the public," Turner said.

But the radio comments only worsened the already-fragile situation between the two governments, said County Councilwoman Ann McFall.

"They trashed us on the air," McFall said. "That's not the way you do things."

Coto agreed.

"I think the reason this issue got so tense is because of the radio talk show and the letters that were sent out," the county manager said recently in her office. "That letter scared a lot of senior citizens. I told Isaac Turner that I did not appreciate his tactic.

"We received about 12 letters and telephone calls from people who were frightened by the letter or heard the radio talk show. We reassured them that their level of service would not suffer under the county once we took over the two fire stations in 2003. In fact, I've talked to several residents who received Ormond's letter and I asked them whether they were ever disappointed with our services before we signed on with the city, and their response was 'no,' " Coto added.

Now, the county is wondering whether the city will sign the automatic first response agreement in the coming months.

"I think it will be very difficult for the city to provide a first response agreement if we do not get some kind of compensation in return," Baker said. "The county says it provides that service free to all of its municipalities, but they only respond with one engine and two firefighters. That's not much to be compensated for.

"We bring a lot more to the table than that," Baker added.

County Councilman Jim Ward -- who was the only member of the panel who voted to continue the contract with the city -- and Councilman Joe Jaynes said they believe the city should receive some compensation.

"That's the only way you could have a true first response agreement," Ward said. "But I think we need to start caring more about safety and less about turf."

Both Coto and Turner said their respective staffs will be discussing the automatic first response agreement in the coming weeks.

"I'm hoping that for the sake of the public, we can work out an automatic first response agreement," Turner said. "We may have to have a third party come in and look at this."