Paid firemen, lifeguards top budget talks



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April 29, 2005 -
by KRISTA DOLAN

STAFF WRITER

St. Johns County Fire Services is requesting a budget increase of more than $5 million for fiscal year 2006 to bulk up both staffing and technology.

Officials from Fire Services were among several county agencies to present budget requests to county staff Thursday in St. Augustine.

Wednesday marked the beginning of the countys multi-month budget process with the start of the administrative budget hearings.

Bobby Hall, chief of Fire Services for St. Johns County, told county staff that the main reasons for the $5 million increase over last year's adopted budget of $12 million were to hire 25 firefighters and for adjustments to their pay plan system.

The millage rate for Fire Services was raised from 1.125 to 1.2 this current fiscal year to help cover salary raises to reduce turnover of firefighters to other agencies ó particularly Jacksonville, whose firefighters receive $1,640 more than St. Johns starting $27,700, according to a county civic groups report. One mil equals $1 for every $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Hall said that Fire Services' five-year plan calls for the hiring of 25 firefighters a year in an effort to convert all volunteer fire stations to career fire stations.

Total firefighter staff is currently at 187, Hall said, noting that by the end of the program, 300 firefighters will be on staff.

More than 100 firefighters have been hired in the past three years, Hall said, noting that some additional firefighters beyond the five-year plan had to be hired to compensate for turnover.

In addition to staff, Hall said that Fire Services would like to equip its vehicles with laptops and a mapping system that will show the best routes and directions for calls.

"This should make a significant reduction in response times," Hall said, adding that the system is currently in the vehicles of all sheriff's deputies. "We're trying to come up to the 21st century as well."

Eventually, lifeguards may also come under fire services, county administrator Ben Adams said, adding that if that were to occur, Beach Services would qualify for money from the general fund coffers.

Beach Services is an enterprise fund, meaning that its budget is based strictly on revenue that comes in from toll dollars collected on the south beaches.

Dave Williams, aquatics superintendent for St. Johns County, told county staff that Beach Services was holding the line with its budget and that the numbers were still being tweaked. Beach Services' adopted budget for fiscal year 2005 was $1.48 million.

Former Commissioner Mary Kohnke of Palm Valley told county staff at the meeting that the county has to start paying for lifeguards.

"The beaches are one of our biggest attractions," Kohnke said, adding that the county should provide for them.

Williams said that this year, St. Johns County Beach Services became the first in the state to train the lifeguards at all beach clubs in a flag program that is open only to local governments.

"So if there's an accident, say at the Ponte Vedra Inn and Club, their lifeguards are trained and utilize the same equipment that we are," Williams said.

Today and Monday are the last two days of the administrative budget hearings, which will take place in conference room A, next to the county auditorium, off U.S. 1 just north of St. Augustine.

Today, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., budget requests will be made by Independent agencies, Social Services, Mental Health4, Community Based Care, Court Services, Solid Waste, Emergency Management, the Medical Examiner and the Library.

On Monday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., budget requests will be made by Public Works, Road and Bridge, Mowing, Engineering, Traffic, Fleet Maintenance, Utilities, Housing, SHIP, Community Redevelopment Agencies, Planning, Zoning and Development Services, animal control, the Humane Society and building services.

Following the four-day administrative hearings, a budget presentation will be made to the Board of County Commissioners and tentative millage rates will be set.

Trim notices are then sent to county residents during the summer, notifying them of tentative millage rates and the dates of two public hearings required before commissioners adopt the budget in September. Fiscal year 2006 begins Oct. 1.