Jacksonville Beach councilors differ on fire merger

Tensions in the Jacksonville Beach fire department necessitate the council make a decision soon on whether to merge the department with the county’s fire protections prices.
That is what City Manager Mike Staffopoulos told councilors at a workshop April 29, noting that some cities have called for a referendum on the matter but that could not be held for months.
Since becoming the city manager in January, Staffopoulos said that he has seen a “department in conflict, with no clean direction on its future. The longer the department goes without a decision, the worse its condition will become.”
Councilors have set May 20 as the date to make a decision, but it is unclear what the final vote will be as councilors appeared split during discussions April 29.
In a memo prepared to answer council questions, Staffopoulos provided cost estimates on various staffing levels. If the Jax Beach fire department were to meet National Fire Protection Association standards, and add nine positions, the cost to the city would be $1 million more annually.
In an alternative scenario, if Jax Beach's fire department reduced staffing to match the county’s original takeover proposal, the annual savings to Jax Beach's existing department would be $343,000.
The county had proposed to reduce staffing if it took over operations here. Asked what it would cost to increase staffing, the county said additional fire engine costs would total $1.45 million annually. Another rescue unit would cost $1,040,871, but under the current agreement between the city and county, Jacksonville already must provide rescue services.
It was originally estimated that switching to Jacksonville for fire protection would save Jacksonville Beach more than $15 million over the next 10 years. Those savings would be adjusted if the city contacted for increased services.
Councilor Phil Vogelsang said that when comparing “apples to apples,” the city would be saving $2 million annually. He explained that currently the city spends $4.5 million on fire protection and adding a million to meet national standards would bring the cost to $5.5 million. In comparison, Jacksonville’s total adjusted costs would be $3.65 million, saving Jax Beach $2 million annually, he said, adding the department cannot continue to operate as it has.
“Is it worth it to keep our name on the truck? Is that an effective use of our tax dollars?” Vogelsang asked.
Councilor Keith Doherty said people opposed to the merger think the city is losing something and said he wants to give people peace of mind.
Councilor Georgette Dumont said the city of Jacksonville Beach has no problem with its fire service, but has human resources issues involving the department.
“Contracting out is the nuclear issue. We can keep control and not be hitched to Jacksonville any more than we are,” Dumont said, citing the steep learning curve the Beaches must endure with each new administration in Jacksonville.
Prior to serving on the council, Dumont served on a county-appointed group that collected information on how consolidation was working. She said that exercise made it clear that people in the county are not happy with the level of service they are provided by Jacksonville.
“We [Jacksonville Beach] made the decision in 1968 [to remain independent} and the more we give away, it is not going to benefit us in the future,” Dumont said.
Doherty noted that Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach voted the same in 1968 and yet are “happy” with getting fire services from the county.
“Why should we throw money at it? Why are we demonizing the seventh biggest fire department in the country?” Doherty asked.
He added that the change is not a hostile takeover and said some can get caught in nostalgia.
Dumont noted that if the city turns over its firefighting gear to the county it will be very hard to reconstitute the department.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
In his memo, Staffopoulos said it would cost $10.1 to $12.1 million to reconstitute the fire department if it is disbanded. The proposed pact calls for a 20-year contract with either party allowed to terminate with two years notice.
Also mentioned in the memo:
• Despite some reports to the contrary, there is not high turnover. Over the last five years, three firefighters have been hired due to two retirements and a death.
• If Jacksonville Beach keeps its department, a change in service model to one day on, two off, will minimize potential for employees working 72 hours straight, which is a complaint now.