Florida Cities Fear Proposed Fire-Rescue Standards

Thirty-six Palm Beach County municipalities are trying to stop a referendum that would set countywide fire-rescue service standards, saying they can voluntarily meet the standards in three years.

Boca Raton was the only one to reject a resolution that county officials asked cities to pass in support of those standards. Officials say their department already is up to par and taxpayers shouldn't have to pay to upgrade smaller departments -- as they say the new standards would require.

"We will not be taking one for the team, but we may be carrying the team," said Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams.

Ongoing since 2003, the issue has antagonized governments that don't want to cede control of their fire departments. County commissioners are to decide the referendum question Tuesday.

A consultant's report in January showed 11 fire-rescue departments serving 14 municipalities don't meet the proposed standards. Those departments include Ocean Ridge, Manalapan, Briny Breezes, Palm Springs, Greenacres and Atlantis.

A county/city committee established standards on the number of firefighters and paramedics on duty, training, response time and equipment. Proponents say countywide standards would equalize service and allow departments to better work together.

County officials were upset last month after 27 cities passed modified resolutions inconsistent with the county's effort. County commissioners then gave the initial vote for a November referendum.

Fearful voters would pass the referendum, the Palm Beach County League of Cities rallied city officials to pass unmodified resolutions. They hope the commission will now drop its referendum plan.

Jamie Titcomb, league executive director, said municipalities don't like the idea of the county usurping their legislative powers.

Titcomb suggested the county and the firefighters union, Professional Firefighters/Paramedics of Palm Beach County, are pushing these standards to fight revenue loss due to annexation. He said the service standards would create more jobs for the county as its tax base and service area diminish.

Palm Beach County Fire-Rescue Chief Herman Brice and Armand Nault, a union vice president, said there are no ulterior motives.

While annexation prompted discussions more than a year ago, Brice said the issue was equalizing service. County officials wanted to ensure that county residents annexed into cities don't see a drop in their fire-rescue service.

"As fire chief, I'm trying to move beyond political concerns," Brice said. "It's clear that in this world after 9-11, it's critical for fire departments to share information and have everyone at least meet minimum levels of service."

At the same time, Brice is pushing cities to join in the county's effort to create a countywide dispatch system. Commissioners last month tentatively approved $2.2 million from the county's general fund to launch the dispatch system in June 2005.

In a July 15 letter to county commissioners, Boca Raton City Manager Leif Ahnell said the cost of equalizing service standards and the countywide dispatch would result in double taxation.

"Boca Raton taxpayers will be paying for their own fire-rescue services as well as upgrades to the fire-rescue services in other jurisdictions," Ahnell wrote.

Titcomb and Ahnell said they are wary of county interest in a regional fire-rescue department, which would put municipal departments out of service. Countywide service standards could be a step in that direction, they said.

Nault acknowledged the union is interested in exploring a regional fire-rescue system. "I think it's the county that is more willing to spend the money for these essential services," he said.

Staff Writer Luis F. Perez contributed to this report.