KEY LARGO -- Some Key Largo fire officials are calling into question the $450 a month the fire chief is spending on average for lunches at local restaurants. The chief said he is picking up the tab in an effort to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters.
"These firefighters need to know that the guy on the sidewalk has their back," said Sergio Garcia, chief of the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department.
Some of the volunteers drive from Miami-Dade County and in certain cases aren't able to get their fuel reimbursed, so lunch is a perk for them, Garcia told the Free Press.
"They'll call me and say, 'Hey chief, want to get lunch?' and I'll meet them somewhere," Garcia said.
But not everyone agrees this is the best way to spend donated funds.
"These lunches are getting out of hand," said former Fire Chief Dave Gow, who also recently stepped down from the department's board of directors. "It is a slush fund and it's a problem that needs to be addressed."
Gow, though, emphasized that he doesn't believe Garcia has done anything illegal. And Garcia says only donated money is used since the chief's account pulls from fire department's coffers and not from taxpayer revenue the department receives from the Key Largo Fire-EMS District.
Of the donations the department received in 2012 through various means, including fundraising "boot" drives along the highway, about 10 percent was used by Garcia for meals, according to financial documents provided to the Free Press. And he says residents should keep giving.
"We're not letting houses burn to the ground," Garcia said.
Garcia has focused his monthly expenses at D-Hooker Sports Bar Grill, The Fish House, Evelyn's Restaurant and Mrs. Mac's Kitchen with monthly expenditures ranging from $200 to $800, the documents show.
The fire department board receives a monthly financial report of how much of his monthly $1,000 allotment the chief spends, but it does not detail where the chief spends the money, Garcia acknowledged. The Free Press did not take into to account expenses for work trips to Orlando and Indianapolis. Garcia said that money was reimbursed by the district.
The discretionary fund was established before Garcia became chief and it serves various purposes including travel, he says, as some hotels won't accept checks. Garcia said the department shouldn't spend its money on what should be coming from district pockets, like correcting signage on one of its stations.
As long as his department is providing good service to the area, he says it shouldn't matter if he buys his employees lunch.
But the fire chief has gotten some push-back on this spending from the elected members on the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, which contracts with the department for fire services. Bob Thomas, who voters elected last year, has expressed concern about the spending.
Garcia says the criticism is misplaced.
"How the corporation spends their money shouldn't be brought up at a district meeting," Garcia said. "It's a waste of time."
On the day of the fire chief's election, which is determined by the vote of firefighters, Garcia bought some of the firefighters' meals with his chief's account, an act he says he normally does throughout the month as an incentive tool.
"It was unfair," Gow said. "There's an ethical problem there and it's not good leadership."
Garcia, though, says the discussion during the lunch meeting was work-related and not about the election.
"The guys will vote for who they trust, not who buys them a hamburger," the chief said.
Thomas said he plans to bring up the chief's account in September when budget season rolls around and the district starts deciding how much to tax property owners and how to spend that money.