County wants run at fire system

City: Taxpayers would pay millions

By Todd Wright

DEMOCRAT STAFF WRITER


Touting the success of its Emergency Medical Services system, Leon County officials are making a pitch to take over the role of the Tallahassee Fire Department.

The suggestion first came from Leon County Sheriff Larry Campbell on Tuesday, minutes after the county named former city Fire Chief Tom Quillin the new EMS director. But county officials had been thinking of running their own fire department for some time, which also made Quillin the ideal hire, said Vince Long, the assistant county administrator.

In an e-mail to city and county commissioners, Campbell wrote: "There is no better individual to assume the role of directing a countywide Fire/EMS department and there is no better time for the County and the City to take this bold and unprecedented step."

City officials, however, aren't subscribing to the sheriff's ideology.

Some city officials are viewing the proposal as a smoke screen by the county to avoid reopening negotiations on a fire-services agreement, which has been a contentious issue for nearly 20 years. It could also cost taxpayers millions of dollars to help the county start a fire department.

The city Fire Department handles fire services throughout the county, and city officials contend the county has not paid its fair share for the services. The Fire Department has a $23.5 million budget this year, and some estimates say city taxpayers contribute as much as $2 million more than they should to subsidize the cost of fire service for residents who live outside city limits.

"I believe the suggestion that the county take over fire is a non-starter and doesn't help negotiations," said City Commissioner Allan Katz, who has been charged with the unenviable task of trying to get the county to consider renegotiating the fire-services agreement. "I don't think our firefighters want to become county employees, and I don't think the city wants to give up the Fire Department. I would be very surprised if something like that would happen."

If negotiations do turn sour, as they have in the past regarding the fire-services agreement, the county has said it would start its own service for areas outside the city limits. Long did not say how the county would pay for such a service, but he admitted it would take a hefty financial investment by the county - likely to be borne by county taxpayers.

"I think there are ways that it can be done, but I don't think anybody is really looking at specifics right now," he said. "There would be some real challenges in putting a system together, but us running EMS has given us an awful lot of confidence."

The city and county have held several meetings in the past few months to discuss two contracts that expire in September, and the city is trying to use the opportunity to re-open the fire services agreement, which ends in 2008.

The city attempted a similar move in 2003 while vying for control of the EMS system, but county commissioners were reluctant to renegotiate. The county eventually opted to start its own EMS system, but it still enlisted the help of city firefighters for first response and advanced life-support help inside the city limits.

The city again attempted to recoup some money in the ALS contract but was rebuffed. The county pays the city $2.2 million to use firefighters for EMS purposes, but the city rebates about $700,000 because it provides ALS only inside city limits. The contract and much of the EMS system is paid for by revenues from a new tax on property established in 2003. The ALS contract expires in 2008.

A consultant hired by the city completed a report last month stating that the county owes the city about $2.1 million more than it will pay for fire service in 2005.

Despite the findings, Long said the county was still "not inclined" to renegotiate the fire agreement and has made it clear to the city that "the county is ready, willing and able to start up its own service."

"I think it is a viable option," he said. "It's not entirely coincidental that we hired Chief Quillin. One of the reasons that we brought him on was in the event we had to go in our own direction. But I think we have expressed an openness to listen to what the city has to say."

The preliminary talks did not stop Campbell from expressing his thoughts about the partnership.

The sheriff has long been an advocate for consolidation of law enforcement and joint dispatch, and his office currently handles dispatch for EMS. In his e-mail, Campbell did speak against having two fire departments, which was the main reason the city agreed to the current contract nearly 20 years ago.

In 1988, the county was negotiating with a private company to provide fire protection outside the city limits. At that time, the county was paying the city more than $1.3 million per year for the service.

County commissioners decided to renew the contract with the city after city officials announced the possibility of layoffs if it lost the contract with the county. At the time, the contract accounted for 18 percent of the Fire Department's budget.

The new agreement led to the construction of six new fire stations and required each station be staffed with at least two firefighters, a quick-response vehicle and a tanker/pumper.

The county paid $1.8 million in the first year of the contract and is expected to pay about $3.4 million for services this year. The consultant estimates the county should be paying about $5.6 million, money the city plans on getting back - somehow.

"We don't think we are getting sufficient funds for the services we provide in the unincorporated area. We've always said that and I think the county knows where we are coming from," said David Reid, the city's director of management and administration. "We are just feeling each other out right now. I don't expect them to come out and say they owe us money."