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Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, July 17, 2013
Gear still with old department

KEY LARGO -- Bunker gear, truck lights and radios are among the items the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department has refused to turn over to the Key Largo Fire-EMS District since losing its contract on May 27.

District board member Bob Thomas, who led the charge to oust the former department, called the situation a "shame." A new fire department has been created under the leadership of the Key Largo Ambulance Corps that includes most of the same firefighters as the old company.

The district taxes residents and uses the funds to pay for fire, ambulance and emergency services.

Last month, the district sent letters to the old department asking it to turn over the gear by a deadline that has already passed and been ignored. Frank Conklin, president of the former department, and Sergio Garcia, the former chief, have not responded to Free Press phone messages for comment since their relationship with the district was severed on Memorial Day.

According to Fire Station Manager Linda Newman, Garcia said he cannot remove the district-owned lights and siren from his vehicle without damaging it. The district is expected to ask Garcia to permanently park the vehicle at Fire Station 24. Since the new department has taken over, district officials say they believe Garcia's chief's vehicle has been parked at his home.

It is still not known how the department intends to spend the $130,000 that remained in its coffers when its contract with the district was terminated. That money, though, was raised through boot drives and was not directly paid through property tax assessments.

Some of those funds are expected to go to Tavernier attorney Russ Yagel, who was retained by the old department before its contract was terminated. In previous interviews, Yagel told the Free Press he hadn't yet billed the former department. He has not responded to multiple records requests for the number of billable hours he has worked on the department's behalf.

At a meeting last week, the district rescheduled a Sept. 16 budget hearing because a lease agreement with the old department has yet to be worked out. The former department owns the land and a smaller building where Station 24 sits. The district owns the station.

The current agreement is expected to expire Sept. 10.

Thomas says he wants to a lease agreement for $1 per month or per year. He said he expects the groups to agree to a temporary lease next month while the legal teams negotiate.

The district has also not ruled taking the building through an eminent domain process, but that could prove costly in legal fees.

Meanwhile, the district has set a tentative property tax rate at $100 for every $100,000 of assessed property value for next fiscal year, which begins in October. The district typically reduces that rate as budget discussions proceed. The next budget hearing is scheduled for Sept. 9 at Station 24. The regular Sept. 16 meeting will be at the Ambulance Corps building at mile marker 98 in the median.

jgore@keysnews.com

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