Miami Herald

Sheriff bids again to run fire, rescue operations
[oi]nne: Move will save Broward $900,000[/i]

BY ERIKA BOLSTAD
ebolstad@herald.com

Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne on Tuesday unveiled a proposal to manage firefighting and paramedic services for Broward County by incorporating its 554 fire-rescue employees under his law-enforcement umbrella.

Advocates say the takeover plan, submitted in writing to commissioners, would save the county an estimated $900,000, but they argue that the cost savings are secondary to consolidating Broward's disparate jumble of more than two dozen fire-rescue services.

That consolidation would not be automatic, but Jenne's track record indicates it might happen. As sheriff, he has contracted to provide law enforcement for 11 cities.

Broward County Mayor Diana Wasserman-Rubin, who has backed the plan since a version of it was introduced a year ago, will ask county commissioners to vote on it next week.

She said Tuesday that her support for the idea solidified after she read about how New York City firefighters and police officers weren't able to communicate with each other on Sept. 11 because they operated on different radio systems.

''I really sincerely believe that this is in the best interest of the people of Broward County,'' Wasserman-Rubin told The Herald. Jenne could not be reached for comment.

The mayor appears to have the backing of several other commissioners, including Jim Scott and Ben Graber, who was the swing vote in the 5-4 vote that killed a similar proposal last year.

Supporters say they admire Jenne's management style and think it would translate well to fire-rescue operations.

''It's certainly worthy of serious consideration because the sheriff has a proven record of being able to operate efficiently and effectively, and to contract with cities for law enforcement services,'' Commissioner Jim Scott said during a telephone interview.

UNION BACKS JENNE

Another Jenne ally is the union representing Port Everglades firefighters, which has tried to break away from the county for years. All three unions within Broward County Fire-Rescue have voted to come under the sheriff's umbrella.

''We support it because the bottom line is that Broward County government has not maintained the integrity of the port's fire delivery system,'' Joe Benavides, the president of the Broward County Council of Professional Firefighters said in a telephone interview. ``They have no commitment to make this department better.''

But the plan has its critics, including three county commissioners: Ilene Lieberman, Lori Parrish and John Rodstrom.

They argue that it consolidates more power under one elected official and that Jenne's skills at providing police protection for 11 contract cities won't necessarily translate to firefighting.

''You need to be careful,'' Lieberman said after Tuesday's County Commission meeting.

``The issues for fire-rescue are different than building the considerable police force he's built.''

Broward County Administrator Roger Desjarlais also has some concerns, including whether the county would save any money by handing over the department to BSO. And Jenne may have the administrative and political skills to manage fire services, but his successors in the elected office may not, Desjarlais pointed out after the commission meeting.

The deal would put Jenne in charge of all public safety at Port Everglades and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, county facilities that are overseen by the County Commission.

TALKS BEGAN IN '01

Discussions about consolidating Broward County Fire-Rescue under BSO were first seriously introduced in 2001, when a consultant released a study critical of the county's patchwork of 24 municipal fire departments and multiple dispatch systems.

Currently, Broward County Fire-Rescue provides firefighting and paramedic services to unincorporated areas of the county and several cities, the largest of which is Weston. Since the study, the county has pumped more money into the department and has recently hired 40 employees.

Many of those new firefighters have come from the county's smaller departments, such as Margate, Lauderdale Lakes and North Lauderdale. Privately, some supporters of Jenne's proposal say that those small cities -- which are struggling to pay for training, equipment and other costs -- would be prime targets for fire protection contracts with the sheriff.

Since he became sheriff in January 1998, Jenne has taken over patrols in 11 Broward cities, expanding his turf to more than one third of the county. He provides security -- at an ever-growing cost since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks -- at Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and the Broward County Courthouse.

Jenne also runs the jails, probation, drug court, truancy programs and child-abuse investigations.

The cities include the booming and relatively quiet suburb of Weston as well as older eastern cities with more complex crime problems, such as Pompano Beach.

The $20 million fire and rescue budget would be a relatively small portion of Jenne's public safety budget; he recently submitted a request to the county for the 2003-2004 budget year for $464 million, up from $250 million five years ago. If the concept is approved, fire-rescue employees would make up just over 10 percent of BSO's 4,500-strong employee base.

Herald staff writer Beth Reinhard contributed to this report.