May 22, 2019

KEY LARGO — Talk of property taxes and levels of service during a recent Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District meeting once again devolved into bickering among the board’s commissioners.

Since 2017 the district has imposed its maximum millage rate — $100 per $100,000 assessed land value — on property owners in order to provide contracted fire and rescue services.

Raising the district’s property taxes beyond that one-mill cap requires approval by voters in a referendum.

Initial research last year on the process revealed that piggybacking the referendum on a major election ballot would save the district money.

Commissioner Bob Thomas responded to public comment during last week’s meeting that the district hasn’t put forward a unified strategy for raising the millage rate and shelved the discussion until budget talks are underway.

Still the question looms large for commissioners who are at odds on if taxes should be raised, and if so, by how much.

While some commissioners say the nearly $4 million budget isn’t enough to sustain the district, at least two board members say other cost-saving avenues should first be explored, which would entail probing the two contracted service providers’ operations, a touchy subject with regard to whether the board even has the authority to do so.

When Thomas asked if the fire department should have Advanced Life Support stickers on its trucks, the jabs between commissioners began.

“The point was made that there is a qualifying crew on 90 percent of your runs,” Thomas said, meaning that fire department staffers are cross trained to serve as paramedics.

Don Bock, who serves as chief to both the contracted fire department and ambulance corps, said the initial start-up in qualifying the fire department as an ALS responder would be about $35,000 with a $1,700 licensing cost per year.

“I don’t see that much of a need,” Bock said. “You don’t need a sticker if you are responding as first responders.”

Bock said that most of the time when Station 25 responds to a call, it’s for basic life-saving services. He added that there’s always a paramedic on staff at Station 25.

Commissioner Frank Conklin, however, questioned whether the ambulance corps’ Station 23 at mile marker 98 would be able to respond in a timely fashion to all ALS calls on the district’s perimeters, roughly from mile marker 95 to the flashing lights on Card Sound Road.

“The fire trucks go out to all the medical calls. The fire truck drops off a guy [to the ambulance] and goes to the next station until the guy comes back,” Conklin said. “If we don’t have enough personnel to maintain both ambulances, do the calls go out of service?”

Conklin cited reports of the fire department answering medical calls for service, which infuriated Commissioner Danny Powers, who later apologized after asking Conklin to shut up and criticizing him for showing up at the Bungalows Key Largo fire.

“You have brought this up for years and years. Your homework is backwards,” Powers said. “We have a commissioner sitting here condemning the departments.”

“I’m seeing a pattern here,” Conklin said.

Before last year’s election, Commissioner George Mirabella called for an ambulance to be housed at Station 25 for quicker ALS response in the district’s north end.

Mirabella says it is critical that stroke victims be treated with ALS services within eight minutes to increase their survival and recovery rate, and given Key Largo’s length and its growing traffic congestion, positioning an ambulance crew at Station 25 would allow for a quicker response.

“The two commissioners here aren’t using common sense,” Powers said of Conklin and Mirabella. “You sit down with the chief. I was in the business for 35 years.”

Powers also criticized the Free Press for reporting concerns raised by Conklin and Mirabella.

Thomas, who was acting chairman, halted the exchange.

“We are putting this to bed,” he said. “This is a staffing problem that can’t be addressed until we discuss raising the millage rate.”

The next Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District meeting is tentatively scheduled for June 10 and definitively for June 24. The meetings are held at 1 East Drive in Key Largo. For more information, visit klfirerescueems.com.

tjava@keysnews.com