Monroe County's fire chief fielded some tough questions Thursday from county commissioners who insisted he justify his proposal to add a dozen firefighters to the county ranks.
Fire Rescue Chief Jim Callahan's proposed budget for next year includes $445,000 to hire seven full-time firefighters at the previously all-volunteer Station 10 on Sugarloaf Key, and $254,476 for four additional firefighters at Station 18 in Layton.
The chief's $11.2 million spending plan for the upcoming year is $1.2 million over last year's budget.
Ultimately, commissioners at Thursday's budget hearing told the chief to have another go at trimming costs.
Not a time to expand?
Commissioners Kim Wigington and Sylvia Murphy questioned whether the county could afford to expand fire-rescue staff in a depressed economy.
The discussion comes a week after the County Commission rejected -- citing a need for parity with other county employees -- a firefighters' contract that would have given raises to fire-rescue employees.
Callahan told commissioners Thursday that public safety is his priority, and that the potential of more calls as the county grows requires proper planning.
"Are the calls going up?" Murphy asked.
Callahan said they were, but he didn't have the data available to back that up.
The long-term plan
Wigington asked why firefighters couldn't be moved from Station 11 on Cudjoe Key to Sugarloaf Key, which prompted Callahan to discuss his long-term goal of moving the Cudjoe Station closer to Summerland Key.
"We're going to have to decide if we want fire stations every five miles," Wigington said.
Commissioner Heather Carruthers acknowledged that Callahan's plan would result in better fire protection for Summerland and Big Pine keys, but said she has not heard from Sugarloaf Key residents.
"I still feel like we need more input from those residents before we make a decision," she said.
Commissioner George Neugent said he, too, had heard nothing from Sugarloaf Key residents, but he commended County Administrator Roman Gastesi and Callahan for raising the issue.
Callahan has heard from Sugarloaf.
Let's see some metrics
"Many in our community know the full cost of one career professional is significant, and that taxpayers will ultimately foot that bill," wrote Bill Hunter, vice president of Sugarloaf Shores Property Owners Association, in a June 24 email to Callahan. "Given the controversy this seems to be creating, it would seem that some metrics or performance measurements would help the public understand the need for and the expense of career firefighters."
Callahan also told commissioners that part of his plan is to bring emergency medical service personnel to the Sugarloaf station. Paramedics from Big Coppitt Key and Cudjoe Key stations now provide service to the area.
The commission asked Callahan to review his budget to see if he can shift schedules or reassign firefighters in an effort to save money.
"I will look at my alternatives and bring them back to the big budget meeting in September and we'll see where it goes," he responded. "I think Sylvia remembers when we had all these volunteers, and that's just not the case anymore."