KEY BISCAYNE
Adding firefighters discussed
The question of whether to add firefighters takes a step forward as the Village Council considers setting money aside to adding four more people.
BY LISA ENGEL
lengel@herald.com

The Key Biscayne Village Council on Tuesday gave preliminary approval to hiring four new firefighters and also gave thumbs up to a new shopping center.

After some impassioned and heated discussion, the council opted to take the first step toward setting aside money to add a position to the fire department, something fire officials -- and many residents -- have been pushing for.

''[The hiring] is is all about priorities,'' said Dr. Robert Maggs, a resident.

''You are all arguing about something that is so bloody important,'' he told the council, adding he believed the extra cost should not be a concern.

One additional firefighter would mean four shift positions, which would call for four new hires to fill them.

If the proposal gets final approval -- scheduled for Feb. 10 -- the council would then amend the budget to pay $219,000 in overtime pay to cover the open shifts until new people are hired.

Chief Jon Gilbert, director of Public Safety, said that three firefighters recently left and that it would take him until July to get all seven openings filled.

''Hiring all the new staff would not be an easy process,'' Gilbert said. ``So for now we would have to use our existing staff with overtime pay until we could find a staff that lives up to our expectations.''

But money has not always been the key concern.

Most agree that more firefighters are needed; but the burning question has been where will they work?

The argument has circled around Station 15, a Miami-Dade county station outside the village that is staffed part-time.

During off hours, the village regularly takes calls until county or Miami firefighters arrive. That, village officials say, puts more strain on the fire department and makes the extra position much more necessary.

Village Manager Jacqueline Menendez has repeatedly said it is the county's responsibility to staff Station 15 full-time.

In November, the council gave Menendez 90 days to strike a deal with the county. Earlier this month, Menendez reported that county officials told her they are currently looking into a special taxing district -- in the form of additional toll money on the causeway -- which would exclude village residents.

But with Tuesday's vote, the council showed it was unwilling to wait for county action.

In other business, the council approved a plan for a new shopping center at 200 Crandon Blvd.

The 24,000-square-foot plaza will offer shopping, a coffee shop, restaurants and office space, with an underground parking garage.

The $3.6 million Mediterranean-style plaza, dubbed ''Key Colony Place,'' will sport cascading steps, terraces and arches topped off with thousands of bougainvillea flowers, according to the plan.

''The best part about this project,'' said Mayor Robert Oldakowski, ``is that it is homegrown; everyone that is part of it is from here.''

The village's goals and objectives workshop is at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Village Hall. Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the noted urban planner and dean of the University of Miami School of Architecture, will be a guest speaker. The next council meeting is Feb. 10.