KEY LARGO -- The Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department will not dissolve, despite losing its service contract, but instead will move into a new building and step up its fundraising efforts, embattled Chief Sergio Garcia said last week.
Garcia said the department plans to provide marine fire suppression, a K-9 search and rescue team and fire police services.
"Canceling the contract doesn't hurt us," Garcia told the Free Press. "It hurts the people of Key Largo."
The fire department lost its contract in March in the wake of an ongoing dispute with the Key Largo Fire-EMS District over department management and oversight. The district taxes Key Largo property owners and contracts with the fire department and Key Largo Ambulance Corps for services.
The Ambulance Corps has agreed to take on firefighting duties at the district's request and has set up a new nonprofit Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department with Ronnie Fell, Scott Robinson and Ambulance Chief Don Bock as corporate officers.
The new department was expected to confirm its board of directors at a meeting Tuesday night. Results from that meeting were not available by press time.
In an effort to save its contract, the fire department board offered the district some concessions, including taking the selection of fire chief away from the membership and allowing the district to veto the board's selection of chief with a 4-1 vote. The concessions also included allowing the district to name two outside members to the fire department's board.
But in a contentious meeting last week, the battle lines held and the moves weren't accepted. At the meeting, district Chairwoman Jennifer Miller accused fellow board member Bob Thomas of pushing to cancel the contract as a move for political gain.
Miller told the department any further efforts to save itself would likely be a waste of time as the 3-2 vote will not change. She and board member Tony Allen opposed the contract cancellation.
Still to be resolved are ownership issues.
The district, for instance, owns the mile marker 99 fire station, but the outgoing department owns the land and the building next to the station.
While Garcia says a lease agreement is likely to be worked out for the fire station, the district's counsel, Dirk Smits, says he has prepared eminent domain documents in case the district is forced to take the land.
As for the building next door, the outgoing chief said he plans to move his department's operations there.
Bock was not thrilled to learn of Garcia's decision to move next door.
"I think it would be difficult," said Bock, who said he has hired all of Garcia's firefighters who have applied with the new department.
District board member George Mirabella said Garcia's services are no longer needed.
"We don't need two departments doing the same thing," he said.
In addition to Garcia's decision to keep his department operating in a scaled-down fashion, another matter has raised eyebrows.
The outgoing department for months has been drafting its annual fundraising letter to mail to Key Largo homeowners. The letter describes the department as providing firefighting services to Key Largo.
Garcia said Friday that he plans to move forward with sending the letter to every home in Key Largo to help fund his new services.
An official from the company that prints and mails the letter told the Free Press that it is awaiting money from the department for postage.
District board member Marilyn Beyer said the mailing would hurt the new department, which needs to start its own fundraising effort.
"It's misleading the public," Beyer added.
Thomas was more emphatic in his reaction to the planned mailing.
"Fraud," he said.
Relationships between the district board and Garcia began to fall apart after a 2009 district audit called for accounting and management changes in the department. Until recently, the department had written off that audit as biased and inaccurate. The department more recently was a year overdue on submitting its 2011 annual report to the district and several months behind in its financial reports.
Tensions worsened earlier this year when Garcia sent an email to the governor criticizing the qualifications of district board members and alleging conflicts of interest.
Garcia's latest criticism is that the district should not turn over the firefighting contract to the Ambulance Corps without putting it out to bid.
The outgoing department is expected to meet Wednesday, May 15.