Florida Keys News - Key West Citizen
Monday, November 25, 2013
Fire-EMS district cutting ties, moving on

KEY LARGO -- With negotiations idle and a lawsuit in the works, the Key Largo Fire-EMS District is trying to cut all ties with the former fire department. Meanwhile, it has drafted a long-term agreement with a new department.

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department lost its contract with the district in the spring due primarily to the district's concerns over department management. A new fire department was formed by the Key Largo Ambulance Corps made mostly of the same firefighters but with different leadership. The Ambulance Corps also contracts with the district to provide emergency medical services.

The old fire department, however, still has assets, including donations collected at boot drives, the property upon which Fire Station 24 sits and a small building next to the station. The former department also makes car and insurance payments on a sport utility vehicle, which served as the ex-fire chief's vehicle.

The former department and the district have been agreeing to short-term leases of the station property until a permanent deal can be worked out.

The district, however, was expected to approve a two-page resolution to take the department's property from them for $1 at its meeting Monday, Nov. 18. Results from that meeting were not available by press time.

The resolution wasn't the result of negotiations with the former department, and based on statements from the old department's leadership, the offer isn't likely to be accepted.

Frank Conklin, president of the former department, says his company has meeting recordings of district board members saying they would give the old department a chance to win back its contract.

"We were told that was still on the table," Conklin said. Consequently, his group doesn't want to turn its assets over to the district.

But the district board has been sending clear signals it no longer wants to work with the old department. The board was expected to move forward Monday night with signing long-term agreements with both the Key Largo Ambulance Corps and the new fire department.

"It's over and done," said district board member George Mirabella. "They didn't want to make any good-faith efforts."

Mirabella, who was the district's point person for negotiations with the old department, said it has done nothing to win the district's favor, such as changing its bylaws regarding management and oversight or severing ties with ex-Fire Chief Sergio Garcia.

One distinct difference in the agreement with the new department is a requirement for the district to provide a cause for termination. When the district severed ties with the former department, the legal reason was "no cause."

There has been speculation that the former department would run a candidate for Mirabella's seat next year in an effort to change the balance of the board to win back its contracts. Board members Tony Allen and Jennifer Miller were opposed to terminating the original contract.

The new agreement will also require a 4-1 vote to cancel a contract, instead of the simple majority vote that ended the former department's contract.

Allen said he supports that supermajority requirement for the purpose of stability.

"If the board changes one way or the other, we could be right back in this mess," he said if only a simple majority were required.

Meanwhile, the district is expected to file a lawsuit to claim private donation dollars being held by the old department and move it to the new department. At press time, the district's attorney Theron Simmons had not yet filed a suit.

jgore@keysnews.com

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