KEY LARGO -- With the Nov. 6 general election around the corner, four candidates are running for two seats on the Key Largo Fire-EMS Board.
The only incumbent running is Tom Tharp, 70, of Key Largo, who touts his 44 years of emergency services experience as his biggest qualification for serving on the board that oversees the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department and Key Largo Ambulance Corps.
Tharp, a retired federal government employee, will face challenger and newcomer George Mirabella for Seat 4.
Tharp began his career with a Maryland fire department in 1960 before coming to Key Largo in 1999, when he joined the Key Largo fire department at about the same time Sergio Garcia took over as chief.
Tharp acknowledged that his opponent also has firefighting experience, but challenged voters to check his leadership experience.
Tharp's goals are to continue to fight for the lowest property tax rates possible.
"The problem we have is we've thrown a lot of money at the issue of recruiting and retaining," said Tharp, a critic of Garcia's management practices. "It doesn't seem to be working as effectively as it should be."
Tharp wants to see more local youth recruited into the fire department. Referring to Garcia's remarks that it would take a paid employee to manage young volunteers, Tharp faulted Garcia for not presenting such an idea to the board. Tharp, who is retired, says he is able to focus most of his time on the fire district.
As for the Ambulance Corps, Tharp said it needs no changes.
"They are well-run and well-managed," he said.
Mirabella, 57 and an employee of Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, said he wants to find a way to increase staffing for the Ambulance Corps.
"There are certain downfalls with volunteers and about three more EMTs would help," he said.
Mirabella also wants to concentrate on improving services as much as possible to further reduce insurance rates for homeowners.
Mirabella said he believes if the district had a liaison with the fire and ambulance departments more would br achieved. The board last year hired a liaison but left the position vacant after its selection resigned a few months later.
"I felt there was more accomplished when there was one," he said.
Mirabella also sounded more open to improvements sought by the district's two departments.
"Both departments have to fight for everything," he said.
Mirabella has been getting the word out about his campaign through T-shirts and political forums.
"People are finally starting to realize I'm the face behind these shirts," he said with a laugh.
Since incumbent Bill Andersen is not defending his open seat, Key Largo residents Tony Allen and Kent Van Winkle are vying for Seat 1.
Allen, 32 and owner of Allen-Beyer Funeral Home, said his former military experience and willingness to learn should sway voters to put him on the board.
Allen, a Gainesville native, was medically discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps before moving to Key Largo. Since 2010 Allen said he has participated in the honor guard with the Ambulance Corps.
"I want to see the Ambulance Corps and fire department running at peak performance," he said.
Allen acknowledged the fire department's struggles with retaining volunteers who often seek full-time jobs elsewhere. He said recruitment is made difficult by a tough background check and a lack of interest.
Allen gives good marks to the Ambulance Corps.
"They get forgotten because they are not as controversial," he said.
His challenger Van Winkle, who ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2010, said Allen is one of the reasons he is running again.
Van Winkle said many of his supporters urged him to run because they are worried about the professional relationship between Allen and board member Marilyn Beyer.
"They both have their names on the front of a funeral home," he said.
Beyer, who drew no opponent during the qualifying period, will retain her seat.
Van Winkle, 73 and a retired pilot with Eastern Airlines, said if he's elected he will focus on expanding public interest in the Fire-EMS district.
"The only people at the meetings are the candidates and the media," he said.
Van Winkle wants to see more participation from the constituents. He said his free time makes him a worthy candidate.
"They have families they have to take care of," he said of some board members and challengers. "I have a lot more time to visit and learn what is going on at the fire department. I've got the time and I'll spend it."
Van Winkle also says board members should be involved with the two departments but not too much.
"We shouldn't be micro-managing," he said. "My main thing is to meet with local organizations and homeowners."
Van Winkle dismissed the need for a liaison to keep the communication line open between the district and the ambulance and fire departments.
"It's a much smaller department than would need a go-between and that's the job of the commissioner," he said.
Van Winkle said he brings leadership skills to the table through his experience at Easter Airlines, where he also served as the South American chief of operations. He said he was tasked with setting up flights throughout South America during a time when several of the countries were politically unstable.
Key Largo business owner Bob Thomas ran unopposed for Mark Wheaton's open seat on the board. Wheaton did not run for re-election but has vowed to stay involved with the district.
Thomas had previously run unsuccessfully for the Key Largo Wastewater Treatment District board.