KEY LARGO -- A Key Largo Fire-EMS District meeting to discuss whether to cancel its contract with the local fire department was abruptly cancelled Monday afternoon, just a few hours before the meeting was to begin.
"This is the biggest thing we can ever do," District Counsel Dirk Smits said of canceling the contract. "We need to give everyone a chance to speak and be noticed."
The district's elected board taxes property owners in Key Largo and contracts with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department and the Key Largo Ambulance Corps, respectively, for fire and emergency medical services.
Smits said the meeting was advertised properly and consistent with other district meetings, but because discussing the contract was on the agenda and due to the possibility of future litigation, it was best to delay the meeting.
The current three-year contract will expire April 26, 2014.
Before canceling the meeting, Fire-EMS District board chairman Jennifer Miller said she received a "courtesy call" from Key Largo Fire Chief Sergio Garcia that he would not be at the meeting.
Smits said he notified Tavernier attorney Russ Yagel about the meeting, but has not had any other communication with him. Yagel was recently hired by the fire department to supplement pro bono attorney Andy Tobin. Yagel will be paid per assignment from the department's funds, not taxpayer money.
The district board and Garcia have had strained relations ever since a district audit in 2009 questioned the department's accounting and management practices. Garcia and the fire department have rejected those findings.
Also in preparation for the canceled meeting, District Clerk Vicky Fay assembled previous audits that outlined some of the department's shortcomings.
Monday's discussion would have come less than two weeks after the Free Press reported that Garcia sent an email to Gov. Rick Scott from his personal account criticizing the state's elected fire districts as well as the Key Largo district.
Garcia's email, which questioned elected members' lack of fire service experience and alleged conflicts of interest, was sent the same day the district responded to Scott's statewide survey of all fire districts. Garcia declined to offer specifics about his concerns when questioned by the newspaper.
According to the district's contract with the department, both entities would have to undergo mediation before any split becomes official.
If that occurs, the district is left with a few options, including hiring professional Monroe County firefighters, creating a new nonprofit volunteer department or contracting with the Ambulance Corps to take over fire service responsibilities, according to Fire-EMS District board member Bob Thomas, who says he has consulted with counsel about the matter.
Contracting with the county is a less favorable alternative as it could likely require an increase in property taxes to pay for a full-time crew. The Key Largo department currently has a mix of paid personnel and volunteers.
Thomas, who is ready to move forward with canceling the contract, said one of his biggest qualms is that the fire chief isn't answerable directly to the district board. Instead, the chief answers to the fire department's governing board, which includes the chief's son and other perceived Garcia loyalists.
"I don't think the fire department board can be objective," Thomas said.
Ambulance Corps Chief Don Bock says taking over fire service would be possible with some assistance from current fire department members and the community. Bock, though, said the district first would need to ask the Ambulance Corps to step forward.
Bock's board of directors called off scheduling a special meeting last week to discuss the matter.
"We are going to await instruction from the district," Bock said.
Ambulance Corps Vice President Scott Robinson agrees that taking over fire services is doable.
"I am certain that there are individuals within the Key Largo Fire-EMS District, along with members of the community and fire department, that I believe will be willing to form a nonprofit and provide fire services to the community, and give the district everything they are looking for," Robinson said.
The Key Largo Fire-EMS District will next meet at 6 p.m. Monday, March 25, at Key Largo Fire Station 24.