June 12, 2019

KEY LARGO — A federal grant application error by the Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District’s fire-rescue contractor has resulted in the under budgeting of payroll for the next three years.

The $190,904 oversight happened when the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department submitted outdated information in an application to receive a Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant.

The grant funds, which have already been accepted by the district, were intended to pay for an increase in the number of full-time firefighters, from eight to 13, for the next three years.

“When we had the grant writer resubmit the grant, we had changed the amount of salary by about $4,000 per employee, so that was reflected in the grant,” Fire Chief Don Bock told district commissioners. “We included health benefits, vision and dental, but it didn’t include vacation time, which was a total oversight. My numbers total about $70K over the three years period that we could have received for the vacation time.”

“Wow, that’s a hell of an oversight,” Commissioner Bob Thomas said. “We bust our fannies to save money on bookkeeping and things like that. We can’t let this happen again.”

The SAFER grant provides funding for 75 percent of the pay for the additional firefighters for the first two years, but drops to 35 percent the third year.

The district’s 2018-19 budget earmarks $200,768 for the SAFER-funded employees for the three years, which the district will now have to nearly match dollar for dollar.

“We come up with $190,903.50 over the three years, of which $117,723 would have been reimbursed from the grant had it been included,” said district finance manager Jennifer Johnson. “The increase is about $63,000 a year.”

The district is obligated to sustain its agreement with FEMA and maintain employing five firefighters for a five-year term, although funding is tiered for three years.

The fire department was initially reluctant to accept five full-time firefighters. Bock previously said that four additional staffers would have been sufficient, but the terms of the grant call for five.

Meanwhile, an initial discussion about raising the property tax cap was largely acrimonious before being tabled. District commissioners must eventually decide by how much to raise taxes beyond the maximum rate of $100 per $100,000 per assessed land value to sustain its fire and EMS services. Exceeding the cap requires approval during a public referendum.

Also during the last district meeting, the fire department revealed that it spent roughly $129,585 in vehicle repairs and maintenance since 2017. This includes $55,461 for work on an old fire engine at Station 24 and $26,311 on a ladder engine at Station 25.

The department will look to unload these aging vehicles.

Commissioner George Mirabella asked if the former wet rescue team’s van parked at Station 25 would be included in the sale items. His question remains unanswered.

The next Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services District meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Monday, June 24, at Station 24 located at 1 East Drive in Key Largo. For more information, visit klfirerescueems.com.

tjava@keysnews.com