Florida Keys News
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
Fire crew applying for jobs

KEY LARGO -- It isn't yet clear what the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department will look like on May 27.

That's the day the Key Largo Ambulance Corps' newly-created fire department and board takes over fire service duties.

But the new Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department could look a lot like the old department if applications are any indication.

Documents obtained by the Free Press show many current firefighters have applied for the Corps' new department, including board members David Garrido, Eric Neitzer and Sergio Garcia Jr., the son of embattled Fire Chief Sergio Garcia.

The fire department lost its contract in March in the wake of an ongoing dispute with the Key Largo Fire-EMS District over department management and oversight. The district taxes Key Largo residents and with those funds contracts with the fire department for services. The Ambulance Corps agreed to take on firefighting duties and has set up a new nonprofit fire department with Ronnie Fell, Scott Robinson and Ambulance Chief Don Bock as corporate officers.

While positions for the new board aren't yet complete, former Key Largo Fire Chief Dave Gow has agreed to become a member. Gow said he has faced a hellish week of criticism from the outgoing department for his action.

Relationships between the district board and Fire Chief Garcia began to fall apart after a 2009 district audit called for accounting and management changes in the department. Until recently, the department had written off that audit as biased and inaccurate. The department more recently was a year overdue on submitting its 2011 annual report to the district and several months behind in its financial reports.

Tensions worsened earlier this year when Garcia sent an email to the governor criticizing the qualifications of district board members and alleging conflicts of interest.

Garcia's latest criticism is that the district should not turn over the firefighting contract to the Ambulance Corps without putting it out to bid.

But Dirk Smits, the Fire-EMS District's attorney, said the district did not bid out the contract to Garcia's department either. Smits said a number of competitive bidding exemptions exist, particularly for special districts.

During a meeting last week, Garcia urged members not to leave his department. Though not enough members showed up for a quorum, many responded during roll call with "still here."

Fire department President Frank Conklin told the members he would keep fighting to save the department until the May 27 deadline. The fire department board has offered the district some concessions, including taking the selection of chief away from the membership and allowing the district to veto the board's selection of chief through a supermajority. The concessions also included allowing the district to name two outside members to the fire department's board.

Garcia told last week's gathering that even if the current department loses its ability to fight fires, it will still be around to provide other services, but he did not elaborate as to what those might be.

Conklin also provided cake at the meeting, which was the last scheduled membership meeting before the contract cancellation goes into effect.

The district is expected to meet Wednesday, May 8, to discuss the contract resolutions.

jgore@keysnews.com

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