Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
Fire chief complains to Scott

KEY LARGO -- Unhappy with the expertise of the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, Fire Chief Sergio Garcia has reached out to Gov. Rick Scott to change district board member qualifications.

Last week, Garcia told the Free Press his complaints are directed at district's throughout the state and not necessarily at the Key Largo district, which taxes residents and contracts with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department for fire services.

However, Garcia's Jan. 30 letter to Scott states that he has experienced problems "since the establishment of our district."

He writes that elected district commissioners "without any fire service experience [make] decisions that affect operations and the health and safety of the firefighters and the public."

He also accuses board members of not understanding state fire code and how fire service relates to insurance costs for homeowners.

Part of his letter takes an accusatory tone, alleging that some commissioners have ties to fire truck manufacturers that seek bids or that they misuse taxpayer money on "an extraordinary number of consultant reports, some of which are [by] personal friends of commissioners."

"I'm not attacking this district," Garcia told the Free Press when asked about the letter.

Questioned about his allegations that commissioners fail to disclose personal relationships when conducting public business, Garcia would not say to whom he was referring. He did allow that some of his complaints were specific to the Key Largo district, but he would not say which complaints.

Since a 2009 district audit that found accounting and management problems in the fire deparment, the district's elected board and Garcia have had a contentious relationship. Garcia said the fire department doesn't recognize the audit.

The fire chief sent his letter to the governor on the same day the district responded to a statewide request by Scott that asked for an overall assessment of fire and ambulance calls, staffing and financial information.

Garcia said the governor is interested in the information to determine the future of fire districts in the state. The governor's office, however, declined on Feb. 20 to meet with Garcia.

Jennifer Miller, chairwoman of the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, said she wasn't aware of Garcia's letter. She shrugged off his concern about elected officials without fire service experience overseeing taxing districts.

"The people on the mosquito board don't have a biology degree and the people on the wastewater district aren't engineers," she said.

Miller said it is more important for the district's board members to understand budgets and how to disperse taxpayer dollars.

"When we gave [the fire department] $400,000 to buy a fire truck, it didn't matter to me about all of the extras," she said.

Miller said as long as the department buys a truck and doesn't spend more than it is given, then there's not a problem.

As to any allegation of personal relationships between board members and fire truck manufacturers, Miller said she has none and doesn't know of any such potential conflicts of interest involving current board members.

Newly elected board member Bob Thomas has taken an interest in the fire department's spending, which has stoked tensions in the fire department community. Miller said Thomas should perhaps adopt a less aggressive and a more inquisitive approach during meetings with the fire department.

Meanwhile, Garcia said the Free Press is giving the department a "black eye" with recent reports that he can spend up to $1,000 a month at local restaurants, which he says he does to treat firefighters for retention and recruitment purposes. The money comes from donations to the department and not from tax proceeds. He also accused the paper of printing incorrect information but would not offer specific errors.


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