Gainesville Sun

County may consider extended fire merger plan

Janine Young Sikes
SUN STAFF WRITER
sikesj@gvillesun.com

Rodney Long tries to sway other commissioners to approve the change.


Call Rodney Long the little fire engine that could.

Or at least he thinks he can. Long, chairman of the Alachua County Commission, believes so strongly in a merger of city and county fire rescue departments, that he's determined to persuade his fellow skeptical board members to support consolidation - even if it means higher property taxes.

And it would mean higher property taxes for everyone living in cities and in rural areas without a guarantee of better service.

So why is Long so intent on handing over the department that the county created only about 15 years ago?

In short, cities - not counties - should be providing urban services, he believes.

"If we look at the role of county government, then the answer is we should move forward with the merger," Long said.

Long has been pushing for a fire merger for nearly three years, and at one point, believed a majority of the board supported it. But two weeks ago, all four other commissioners expressed reservations about a plan essentially agreed to by the Gainesville City Commission that would have initiated a merger beginning Oct. 1.

Dream deferred
Had a vote been taken that day, the merger likely would have been killed.

With hopes of turning at least two commissioners around, Long is expected to tout a longer-term transition plan of possibly three or four years - rather than the city's three- to four-months proposal - at a special meeting on Tuesday.

It's doubtful there will be a final vote, however, and Long may have enough support to extend the discussions a little longer.

"I'm looking for more detailed information," Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut said.

"I'm in no rush to get this implemented," Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said. "I've only been involved with this for a short time."

Commissioners Penny Wheat, who has never supported consolidation of the two departments, and Mike Byerly could not be reached for comment.

The two biggest sticking points for Chestnut and Pinkoson are initial costs and no demonstrated cost savings over the long term.

In order for the city to take over county stations, the county would have to bring its staffing up to city levels by hiring 18 additional firefighters and 12 emergency medical personnel. The additional personnel is estimated to cost about $1.7 million.

To cover the cost, property taxes would have to be raised for both city and county residents beginning Oct. 1, 2005. City residents with a $125,000 home, minus the homestead exemption, would end up paying an extra $12.90 a year. Residents living in unincorporated Alachua County with the same home value would end up paying nearly $33 more a year.

Long's proposals would phase in the property tax increase over three or more years. Yet at the end of the time period, the total tax increase - and the amount homeowners would pay - would be the same $12.90 and $33.

Likely tax increase
Tax increases are not an easy sell to budget-conscious board members worried about passing on costs to property taxpayers.

But taxes might have to go up anyway.
The county is trying to run a fire and emergency services department like a city, but on a rural budget. Eventually, county officials expect needs to outpace revenues.

As it is now, fire and ambulance response times for residents living outside of Gainesville rival those of the city.

But if growth continues on the western side of the county, a new station could be needed in coming years near NW 39th Avenue and Interstate 75 and additional personnel may be needed at the Jonesville station, Alachua County Fire Chief Will May said.

Aware of the future need, the county has included a new station for the SpringHills area in its capital needs plan.

"Whether it remains unincorporated and the direct responsibility of the Board of County Commissioners or there is an annexation by the city, whoever is responsible will have to address the demands of those areas," May said.

Seeking voters' voice
Two years ago, voters - by nearly a 71 percent margin - said they support unification of city and county fire services.

Long regularly cites the statistic as the reason to continue working on a merger.

But Pinkoson said he believes most people expected a cost savings to come with consolidation. And he expects lower costs, too.

"I've read nothing that explains where there are economies of scale," Pinkoson said. "We ought to be able to realize some sort of savings in all of this."

Long has said repeatedly that the savings will "come down the road."

If he doesn't get the support he wants from commissioners, Long said he plans to propose the commission place another referendum on next year's November ballot

But unlike the last one, this ballot item would be binding by changing the city and county charter.

If the County Commission fails to vote to put the item on the ballot, Long said he's prepared to get the necessary signatures starting next spring.

"This doesn't alarm me," Long said. "I'll just persevere."

Janine Young Sikes can be reached at 337-0327 or sikesj@ gvillesun.com.