Sheriff Negotiating With 4 Broward, Florida Cities To Take Over Fire-Rescue

The same day the county commission voted to turn over control of the county fire-rescue department to Sheriff Ken Jenne, he confirmed that he was already talking with four cities about taking over their departments.

The question is: Which four?

No city officials would admit their departments are on the table, but on Friday Jenne met briefly with the presidents of fire unions from 12 small-to-medium-sized cities.

Union leaders from North Lauderdale, Lighthouse Point and Oakland Park said they are interested in joining the sheriff's fold, citing better pay and benefits, more opportunities to advance and the chance to learn special skills. And four other cities -- Lauderdale Lakes, Parkland, Margate and Dania Beach -- might be in a position to look hard at a merger in the near future.

"If ever in the last 25 years Broward County had the opportunity for consolidation of fire-rescue service delivery, now would be the time," said County Administrator Roger Desjarlais, who will continue to oversee the department until the sheriff takes over Oct. 1. "We now have fire rescue being managed by the person who is not only the chief executive, but also the policymaker. It makes decision-making that much simpler."

Previously, the county administrator oversaw the fire-rescue department, but he had to persuade county commissioners to approve any moves he wanted to make.

At first glance, Dania Beach's 53-member department might be an easy, first acquisition for the sheriff, because he already provides police service for the city, and the city manager and the mayor both are retired Sheriff's Office employees, but union president Rich Sieb said his members are happy right where they are.

"We have one of the finest fire departments in the county and one of the best response times," he said. "I don't think it can be beat."

North Lauderdale firefighters want to join the county system, and the city already uses a public safety model similar to the one Jenne proposed countywide. The highest-ranking fire official, Assistant Chief Rodney Turpel, reports to Sheriff's District Chief Louis Cavallo. North Lauderdale has been paying the Sheriff's Office for police protection since 2001.

City Manager Mark Bates said the city commission is not working on a deal with the sheriff to send its 42 firefighter/medics to the county, but Fire-Rescue Lt. Randy Bramos said it is only a matter of time.

"Our membership is 100 percent for one big system and we have been for a long time," Bramos said.

A merger between North Lauderdale and Margate's department failed last year, but Bramos said he thinks Jenne has the political skill to forge such a complex deal.

"The city knows we want to go," he said. "It's one of those things that you're not going to stop, so you might as well just get on board and make sure it goes OK for you."

Turpel said a lot of the smaller cities should think about banding together because fire departments are expensive to operate and small cities don't have the tax base to support them on their own.

Pompano Beach union president John DeVoe finds it hard to believe that Jenne will save the county fire-rescue department. It was facing extinction as more and more unincorporated land was annexed into cities and, until recently, was trying to transform itself into specialty teams that would focus on things like technical rescue and hazardous material calls.

Several cities "fired Broward County Fire Rescue in the past 10 years," DeVoe said. "It's not that Broward County firefighters were fat, stupid, weak and slow. The county couldn't properly administer the service."

"I can't imagine why we'd want to join with them," he said. "Ken Jenne is by all reports a hell of a politician and seemingly good at doing the sheriff thing, but we're very, very happy being Pompano Beach professional firefighters."

Oakland Park City Manager John Stunson said the city sent the county a letter saying they wanted to maintain control of their own department, but the firefighters are keeping an open mind about a Jenne takeover.

It's a medium-sized department that is supposed to staff 76 firefighters at three stations, but new people are being trained and lost, union president Kevin Thayer said, because the city "is giving us a hard time as far as pay and benefits."

"The rank and file are for any type of consolidation efforts," Thayer said. "The motto is `serve and protect.' It doesn't really matter who they work for."

Lighthouse Point firefighters are also hoping to find strength in numbers. The city has one of the highest per capita income rates in the county, but its 24 firefighters have old equipment and no pension plan, said union leader Pat Jones.

"Almost half [of our firefighter/paramedics] are on the job less than a year," Jones said. "And our core people have applications in with other departments. Something needs to be done soon."

Parkland, another affluent community, is reviewing its public safety department, which uses volunteers and cross-trained police officers to fight fires, and Coral Springs Fire Rescue to answer medical calls.

"We've hired a consultant and he's going to come in here and look at our people and budget and level of services, and provide us with a list of alternatives," City Manager Harry Mertz said. "We'll be considering all alternatives, so naturally [a sheriff takeover] would be one of them."

Lauderdale Lakes and Margate are two other cities that have had problems in recent years keeping firefighting positions filled. Lauderdale Lakes lost seven of 45 members to Broward County Fire Rescue this year.

Margate Fire Rescue lost eight of 108 at that time, and as many as 20 currently have applications pending with Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Despite their inability to keep people, Commissioner Arthur Bross and City Manager Len Golub said they have the best fire-rescue department in the county, if not the state, and have no interest in talking to Jenne about handing over control. The commission voted last week to raise taxpayers' fire assessment from $63 to $85 so they can raise firefighters' salaries and, it is hoped, stop the hemorrhaging.

Lauderdale Lakes City Manager Anita Fain Taylor wasn't as bold. Her city's firefighters worked without a contract for two years and recently settled for underwhelming raises because they recognized the city has money woes.

"Eventually, maybe we'll look at what the sheriff has to offer" for fire-rescue, Fain Taylor said. "But we just got a contract approved. We don't want the union to feel" as though they're being abandoned.When Jenne emerged from the closed-door meeting with the 12 unions Friday, he said the firefighters want "to be treated professionally and they want more professional opportunities." He is confident he can offer any firefighter who comes his way those guarantees.