September 12, 2018

KEY LARGO — The Key Largo Fire Rescue & Emergency Medical Services commissioners last week approved a version of the 2018-19 budget that earmarks $160,614 in federal grant money for three years for five full-time firefighters.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, grant was accepted by the board, which is foregoing an alternate version of the budget that included the district providing out-of-pocket funding for two full-time firefighters.

The SAFER grant provides funding for 75 percent pay for the firefighters for the first two years, but drops to 25 percent the third year. FEMA requires quarterly reports for three years to provide the stipend.

The district has budgeted $1,977,012 to cover the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department, showing a difference of $157,482 in the two budget options.

The special taxing district will collect $3,243,746 from property owners and receive $150,000 from Monroe County’s one-cent infrastructure tax. For a second consecutive year, the district is charging the maximum allowable tax rate of $100 per $100,000 of assessed property value as set by the Florida Legislature. The rate is 5.86 percent higher than the rollback rate of $94.46 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

Finance Director Jennifer Johnson recommended accepting the SAFER grant, but warned if taxable property values should fall, the ability to keep the additional firefighters may wobble.

“If we have five additional firefighters, then we’d have cut back on some of the overtime hours that are budgeted at $90,000,” Johnson said.

“FEMA funds roll in for the first three years, then the fourth and fifth year, the funds are unrestricted, but we’d have to keep staff at 13,” Fire Chief Don Bock said, which is part of the department’s five-year strategic plan.

He said it would be ideal to have two additional firefighters at both stations.

“I’d love to have five people, but I’m not sure if we can afford to have five people years down the line,” Bock said.

Chairman Tony Allen suggested having the employees sign a waiver that the job is contingent on funding.

“If they’re signing the paperwork, other than the person losing their job, what would be the repercussion?” he said. “I understand no one want to be the bad guy.”

Revised unity policy

The revised board policy passed 3-2 with Commissioners George Mirabella and Bob Thomas dissenting. Board members had called to amend the previously approved policy to reprimand commissioners who fail to abide by it. The policy calls for a supermajority vote of public censure, followed by a vote of no confidence.

Thomas, who was absent from the previous meeting, said, “This is much ado about nothing. … There’s a procedure to go about when somebody is doing something wrong. A vote of censure by the board is finger wagging, and a vote of no confidence is further finger wagging. Folks, we have a couple of months [before the election]. Let the voters handle this. Let’s just move forward with the other things that we need to look at.”

In other news, the board:

• Unanimously approved an amount not to exceed $18,000 for an Auto Pulse for the Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps.

• Approved in a 4-1 vote the purchase of 5 iPads for commissioners not to exceed $2,2000. Thomas dissented.

• Will approve invoices submitted by the fire department for unreimbursed expenses following last year’s Hurricane Irma.

The final district hearing regarding its proposed 2018-19 budget will be Monday, Sept. 24, before its regular meeting. The meeting will be held at 1 East Drive.

tjava@keysnews.com