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Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Thursday, April 11, 2013
District offers few mediation points

The Key Largo Fire-EMS District made little headway last week when it met to discuss mediation points with the fire department.

Tempers flared, voices were raised, and in the end, no clear guidance was given to the department.

In a 3-2 vote last month, the district's board canceled its contract with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department. That contract, which was set to expire in April 2014, provided taxpayer dollars to the department in return for fire services in Key Largo.

What the district wants accomplished during mediation isn't entirely clear.

Board member Bob Thomas offered that a new fire chief and fire department board are needed. He added that separate officers should control scheduling and training. Thomas has previously raised concerns that Fire Chief Sergio Garcia is answerable only to the rank-and-file members who elect him and not to the district's board.

Garcia said he does not review the internal computer system that manages the scheduling, which results in reimbursement.

Thomas' comments came in the wake of a recent Key Largo Ambulance Corps meeting where the volunteer group, which provides emergency management services to the district, offered to take on fire-rescue services, if asked to do so by the district. This mainly came as an attempt to keep Monroe County firefighters out of the Upper Keys.

To others, though, Thomas' statements appeared premature and to be circumventing the required mediation phase.

Board member Tony Allen, who was against canceling the contract for lack of public outcry, said it appears the votes are set.

"Everybody's made up their mind," he said.

Allen said he has heard many second-hand stories of intimidation in the fire department, but if it is true that person needs to attend a district board meeting and speak up.

"We have nothing here but hearsay," he said.

Before the meeting, Garcia's battalion chief, James Griffeth, wrote a letter to the district accusing Garcia of bullying firefighters and running the department like a dictatorship.

A 2009 district audit of the fire department also raised concerns about management practices, though the findings were rejected by Garcia as unfounded and were largely ignored by the department.

More recently, the department was a year overdue on providing the district with its 2011 annual report and several months behind on submitting financial reports, both violations of its contract with the district.

Board member George Mirabella was in no mood to mediate during last week's meeting. He said he's ready to finalize the contract's termination.

"That's why we did this without cause," Mirabella said.

The dissenting votes to canceling the contract tried to separate themselves from the other three.

Board Chairwoman Jennifer Miller said she did not want to be responsible for increasing taxes on property owners should a new fire service arrangement result in higher costs.

She also said it was unknown if homeowner's insurance rates, which are directly impacted by fire service response times, would increase as a result of change.

"I don't want to be a part of that major problem," she said.

A second meeting to review mediation points was set for Monday, April 8. Results from that meeting were not available at press time. A private mediation meeting among fire department officials and district officials has not been scheduled.

jgore@keysnews.com

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