November 27, 2019

KEY LARGO — Fire district commissioners once again discussed raising the one-mill property tax cap during their strategic meeting last week, while talk of hiring firefighters and emergency medical staff as Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services district staff temporarily stalled.

The district appointed a fact-finding committee to study the pros and cons of firefighters and EMS staff becoming direct employees of the district, or of forming a new organization with which the district could contract for services.

The five-member committee was spurred by the Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps’ internal restructuring as a private organization, which precludes firefighters from state cancer coverage. The district contracts with the KLVAC for fire and EMS services, with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department functioning as a subsidiary of the corps.

However, the facts presented to commissioners last week were insufficient, they said.

“Part of the committee’s fact-finding mission is the impact to the community,” district Chairman Tony Allen said. “There’s a lot of great information here, but we’re still missing a lot. How’s the overtime going to work? How’s it going to impact the taxpayers. This doesn’t give me enough information to make a decision for the taxpayers.”

As part of the KLVAC’s realignment, both the fire department and ambulance corps are restricted to a 40-hour work week.

The committee, comprised of firefighters, defended the information brought forward.

“We provided you with the entire year’s outlook of what overtime would look like if we were based on the 40-hour work week since the beginning of the year,” Fire Capt. David Garrido said. “In my opinion, it’s going to take a professional company to fully explore these options. That’s beyond our scope of knowledge.”

Commissioner Frank Conklin, who initiated the fact-finding effort, agreed that a professional consultant might be better suited for the task at hand.

“I’m asking you guys [the committee] to have patience and maybe in the future, we can bring on a consultant,” Conklin said. “Let’s get this information and go for another month. But please, I don’t want to lose this. I want to see what’s best for the taxpayers and best for the district. I’m looking for an explanation of the graphs and let’s get through the book.”

The district last week learned that a resolution to approve the referendum language to raise taxes beyond the one-mill cap, or $100 per $100,000 of assessed property value, would need to be adopted by August 2020. The resolution would then need to go before the Monroe County Commission and be vetted in public hearings before being placed on the November election ballot.

The district’s contracted finance department previously recommended raising the tax cap to two mills, or $200 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

By doing so, the district would be able to raise taxes incrementally until it reaches the new cap. The one-mill cap was set by legislation at the district’s inception 13 years ago. The district has been discussing the need to raise the cap since meeting it in 2018.

Commissioners have said that figure is no longer feasible to contend with risings costs of staff, insurance, pension plans and operations.

“Oh, how badly we need this,” Commissioner Bob Thomas said. “It could take us 10 to 15 years to reach the new set cap.”

The district’s biggest cost is labor, according to its budget.

“The garbage man wants $402 and the KLFREMS wants $204. We are well below other agencies,” Conklin said. “There are more guys on the garbage truck than there are on the fire truck right now. Staffing is an issue.”

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, as part of a national trend, has experienced a decline in volunteers over the last few years which has necessitated the hiring of paid staff.

Required certifications and Monroe County’s high cost of living are part of a complex problem.

“We can no longer sustain a fully volunteer fire department. It’s too expensive to live here and it requires too many classes,” Allen said.

Thomas agreed.

“We aren’t the little town that we used to be,” he said. “With the fire department becoming more autonomous, we are looking for a paid fire chief too, and you have to look at that.”

Fire and EMS Chief Don Bock said, “You can’t guarantee that the volunteers will be there. When there is paid staff, there’s more of a guarantee they will be there.”

The fire department has added matching funds to its retirement program as a retention incentive and the search for a pension program is underway. The department has been losing 25 to 30 staffers annually, both volunteer and paid, during the last few years.

Most firefighters use their position in the Key Largo department as a stepping stone for employment with other departments,.

In other district meeting action, commissioners approved by a 3-2 vote to “unsurplus” the Station 24 2013 fire engine and Station 25 Dive Rescue boat. Commissioners Allen and Danny Powers dissented.

Commissioners also approved a 30-day extension with the Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps, and its subsidiary fire department for services, and OK’d an increase in costs to contract for legal services with Vernis & Bowling.

Commissioners briefly discussed raising board pay from $200 per meeting, which was set in 2006. No action was taken.

The next KLFREMS meeting is at 6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9, at Station 24 located at 1 East Drive in Key Largo. For more information visit klfirerescueems.com.

tjava@keysnews.com