June 24, 2020

KEY LARGO — Two of the three non-partisan seats on the Key Largo Fire Rescue and Emergency Medical Services District board will be contested this fall, while incumbent Chairman Tony Allen, who remained unopposed at the qualifying period ended June 12, will retain his seat.

Each board seat carries a four-year term, with commissioners, since the district’s inception, being paid $200 a month.

Beginning his third term in November, Allen said although he’s a proponent of term limits, he said he feels responsible for continuing to help govern the district.

“I’m hoping that we can come together as a board a little bit better. It would be nice to get more things accomplished during our meetings, and I’d like to see the separation of the departments go smoothly,” he said.

Allen predicts that in the future, the contracted fire and EMS service providers may become a combined fire/EMS company but supports the organic separation that has recently developed.

“This way, each department has to be more self-accountable and self-reliant.”

The Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department has been a subsidiary of the Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps since 2013.

Allen said he will continue to try to seek capital outlay funding to install a second floor on Station 24 for gender separate dorms.

“The firefighters have been really good at utilizing the space and have been able to adapt so far but for the most part, we have used every inch of space and there isn’t a district board office,” he said.

Recently the board passed on putting a referendum on the November ballot to raise the one-mill cap, which is a $100 per $100,000 of assessed property values tax limit set by the district’s charter in 2005.

Since 2017, the district board has levied the maximum one-mill on homeowners for fire and EMS services.

“We may potentially have to [raise the cap] in two years, or it may be needed in four years. But before we put that to vote, we have to be organized and let everyone know where exactly that money is going,” Allen said.

Allen said it’s too early to decide if the departments’ staff should be direct employees of the district or not. That discussion has been ongoing for the last several months. As direct employees, they would be eligible for benefits they don’t receive as members of a private, nonprofit service provider.

“The staff needs to be self-aware of the costs of running a business. Although they are a nonprofit and service providers, there is still a cost of doing business,” Allen said.

Seat 5 race

Incumbent Commissioner Danny Powers is seeking re-election to Seat 5. He said his familiarity with how the district operates is an advantage.

Powers said he’d like to find ways to better support and retain department staff.

“I have no problem with staff becoming direct employees of the district. I am a retired firefighter. I collect a pension. I have not voted against anything that would benefit the firefighters and EMS personnel. I’m here for the firefighters/EMS and to take care of the taxpayers,” he said.

As for raising the tax cap, Powers said, “I looked over the budget very carefully, and I wanted to make sure that what we are doing will work for the next two years. It took more than 10 years to reach the one-mill cap, and to keep it going and up to par, we will eventually have to raise the millage. We need to be careful and approach it very transparently on how the money will be spent before we ask taxpayers.”

Powers has been a paramedic/firefighter since 1984 and has lived in Key Largo for more than 40 years.

“We’ve come a long way in the last few years, but you can never have enough training. We’re doing a good job on seeking grants, and we need to continue to work with the state, the federals, and get all the grants we can to keep the taxes low.”

Political newcomer Ronald Spodnik is contesting Powers for Seat 5.

A retired New York City police officer, Spodnik has lived in Key Largo for 17 years. He recently retired from Divers Direct and is an avid scuba diver and underwater photographer.

“Now that I’m retired, I have the time to put in to this and I want to serve the community,” he said. “I was trained as a paramedic over my 20-year career as an officer.”

When asked if he supported raising taxes beyond the one-mill cap, Spodnik said the budget had to be closely evaluated.

“I’m concerned that taxpayers may soon face paying more and getting less services as the departments shift to a more paid department. If I can help, I would certainly like to,” he said.

In terms of employee retention, Spodnik supports department staff working for the district.

“It makes sense if the firefighters and paramedics become direct employees of the district. They should be able to get state retirement. Right now, there is nothing to keep them here. They come here, get their training and leave,” he said. “We need to make sure the department staff and the community is safe. Keeping taxes low is important, but it has to be balanced out to keep everyone safe and the staff here.”

Seat 3 race

Key Largo Volunteer Ambulance Corps member Ken Edge has filed for Seat 3, currently held by Commissioner Bob Thomas who is not seeking re-election. He will face Michael Jenkins, a local utility employee.

Edge has been a member of the local EMS provider for more than 28 years and has served on its corporate board intermittently for about 15 years. He is currently vice president and, until recently, also served on the fire department board.

“I am running for district commissioner because I care about both departments,” he said. “I feel that my knowledge and hands-on experience will help. I am community-oriented and want to continue providing first-class 911 services to this community. I feel we need cool heads, without an agenda.”

Edge said the current one-mill cap is enough to maintain fire and EMS services for the next few years.

“I feel the current millage rate is sufficient to continue providing excellent service,” he said. “Two years down the road, we will need to look at that again. I believe in the volunteer system, along with paid staffing.

He said the two most important jobs of a district commissioner are ensuring excellent 911 service and care, and maintaining a fiscally responsible budget.

Jenkins is a 34-year resident of the Upper Keys and has been a Florida Keys Electric Cooperative employee for nearly two decades.

“I can’t be a frontline firefighter anymore, so this is a way I can serve the community,” he said.

Jenkins served as board president of the previous Key Largo fire department for nearly a decade and as an engineer and lieutenant for former department operations.

“Raising taxes is something in the near future that may need to be addressed,” he said. “The larger expenses now are staffing adequately, maintaining equipment and providing training for paid staff. We are running out of people who have the time to commit to volunteering, so some time probably in the near future, there will be more paid staff and fewer volunteers.”

Jenkins said if it benefits employees to be directly hired by the district and it’s feasible from a tax standpoint, he’d support the move.

“They’re still researching this, so if it’s going to be an astronomical cost, then we’d have to look at other options, but they should have state retirement and all the other benefits that come with being a first responder,” he said.

tjava@keysnews.com