KEY LARGO -- Out with the old and in with the new.
On Memorial Day, Monday, May 27, the Key Largo Volunteer Fire-Rescue Department is to be replaced by the newly-formed Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department.
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 the new nonprofit Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department.
Outgoing Fire Chief Sergio Garcia said he expects the new department will be bombarded with issues the day their contract starts.
"I spoke up at their meeting, I'm not going to go knock on anybody's door," Garcia said.
Garcia said the changeover will likely cause insurance rates for homeowners to go up.
The outgoing department is expected to set up shop in a building next to its former station. Garcia says the old department, which had $129,365 in its coffers as of April 30, may provide fire police, K-9 and marine fire suppression services.
For months the old department 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. It has been printed a Maryland company which says it is awaiting postage fees before mailing.
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.
The district was expected to meet Monday, May 20, to front the new fire department $25,000 in startup cash. Results from that meeting were not available by press time.
The outgoing department has scheduled a meeting for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 22, to discuss transition-related issues. Opting not to make any last-minute "Hail Mary" effort to save the department, the department's board of directors has decided to form a committee to try to win back the contract next year.
Their attorney, Russ Yagel, advised them that their efforts would be easier after the contract expires next Monday and the department is no longer subject to the state Sunshine law. That means the department leadership can make decisions outside of public scrutiny.
Which entity owns what at the station must still be worked out.
The district's counsel, Dirk Smits, said a temporary lease agreement is being inked for the outgoing department to rent its land and certain equipment to the new department.
Smits said the old department would likely remove personal property from the fire station, such as chairs or desks.
District board member George Mirabella said the old department should disband rather than linger and try to win back its contract.
"They are losing the contract and they probably won't get it back," he said.