Buddy, Can You Spare a Multimillion-Dollar Fire-Service Contract?

One might be tempted to think two local fire departments would be able to devote their combined energies toward the common goal of providing an indispensable public service. But during cutthroat economic times, controversies erupt in the most unlikely places, and these days union leaders representing the City of Miami and Metro-Dade fire departments seem bent on taking care of their own, and grabbing work wherever they can.

The friction has reached the combustion point in Key Biscayne, where fifteen months ago citizens voted to incorporate as a village. For the past 40 years, Metro firefighters have handled all medical and fire emergencies on the island, with three paramedics and four firefighters working out of a station on Crandon Boulevard, about eight miles south of the Rickenbacker Causeway tollbooth. Although many islanders are happy with the quality of service Metro provides, they don't like the idea of paying the annual fee of $3.6 million that the county government charges for it, according to businessman Clifford Brody, a member of the Village Board of Trustees who has studied the issue in depth. The fee is roughly $1.2 million more than what it costs the county to provide fire protection.

Metro can't simply lower the charge for Key Biscayne, because the tally is based on a fixed formula. Regardless of the neighborhood, taxpayers living in the county's fire district (which includes all of Dade County except Miami, Hialeah, Miami Beach, and Coral Gables, cities that maintain their own fire departments) pay a flat fire-protection rate of $2.28 per $1000 of their property's assessed value. Brody says that formula works against property owners in Key Biscayne, where a typical three-bedroom, two-bathroom residence assessed at $250,000 amounts to a $570 annual fee for fire-rescue services. If the same house were in South Dade, says Brody, it would be valued at $55,000, and the owners would pay only $125 for fire protection.

The only way the county could lower its fee would be to amend the ordinance that created the fire district, says Metro Fire Department spokeswoman Rhonda Sibilia. "That would open a can of worms," she adds, "because every other city in the fire district would want to renegotiate their rates. It could destroy the entire financing for the district. Why should we do it for Key Biscayne?"

The discrepancy between the fee and the actual cost of fire-rescue protection has prompted village trustees to look for a less expensive alternative to the status quo. They are considering four options:

1) staying with the county and paying the high fee; 2) creating their own fire department; 3) hiring a private firm to provide fire protection; or 4) considering a bid submitted by the Miami Fire Department. On February 19, a citizen's committee endorsed the second option, but Brody says the trustees, who will make their final decision by April 1, would prefer to remain with Metro at a reduced cost.

At about $2.5 million per year, the Miami Fire Department's bid undercuts the county's fee by $1.1 million. For that lower price, Miami Fire Chief Carlos Gimenez asserts, his department can match the county's level of fire-rescue services. (Miami's estimate, however, does not include rent and maintenance for a fire station, costs the Metro service covers.)

The Miami Commission has the final say as to what fee the city fire department would charge, and on January 17 the Metro firefighters' union sent Commissioner Miller Dawkins a letter complaining that the Miami bid was flawed. After studying the city's proposal, paramedic Stan Hills, who analyzes statistics for Dade County Local 1403, concluded the figures did not reflect all the costs that would be incurred. Miami taxpayers, says Hills, would have to make up the difference when it came to pension benefits, severance pay, and certain administrative expenses. "You need to keep the costs as low as you can, but you can't lower it beyond what has to be paid for essential services," he contends. "Key Biscayne wants to pay less. Miami is willing to subsidize them."

Gimenez's own number cruncher disputes Hills's claim. "I put that information together, and all of those things are factored in," counters William Huddleston, deputy chief of administration for the Miami Fire Department. The city's bid covers all expenses and even anticipates a profit of about $400,000, Huddleston says.

On February 11, The city firefighters' union dispatched a letter of its own to Dawkins. "I find it humorous to think that Dade County Local 1403 has the slightest concerns about City of Miami taxpayers," wrote Bill Bryson, president of the Miami Association of Firefighters Local 587. "It makes me wonder why, if Local 1403 is so concerned for city taxpayers, they don't watch over Dade County taxpayers in the same manner."

The Metro union, Bryson went on to point out, had recently usurped the city's contract to provide fire-protection service to the Port of Miami, for double the $500,000 annual fee the city had charged. Until this past October 1, when the county took over, the Miami Fire Department had covered the port from a station downtown on NE Fifth Street, four minutes away from the shipping facility on Dodge Island. Since the takeover, the county has maintained a temporary station on port property and staffed it with two paramedics, two firefighters, and a vehicle with firefighting and advanced life-support equipment. The switch, argue Bryson and his boss, Chief Gimenez, will result in county taxpayers having to pay the additional $500,000 bill, or, at the very least, suffer a cut in service.

Rhonda Sibilia insists the change doesn't cost county taxpayers anything. The port will continue to contribute $500,000, she says, the same amount it paid Miami for fire-rescue services; the Metro Fire Department will absorb the rest by transferring two around-the-clock positions from other fire stations. To make up for net personnel loss, the Metro union agreed to allow some fire vehicles to operate with three firefighters on board, as opposed to four, the standard number.

Hills defends his union's actions at the port, which has become the busiest cruise hub in the world, with more than three million passengers per year. Arguing further that the port merits its own fully staffed, on-site fire station, Hills cites for comparison the world's second-busiest cruise port, Port Everglades, 23 miles to the north. Port Everglades, which has a staff of 40 firefighters based in their own station on the premises, spends $4.7 million annually year for its fire-rescue services.

The escalating debate has eroded any goodwill and camaraderie that ever existed between the two fire departments. "What we need is cooperation by departments and mutual aid," laments Hills. "What we get is fighting over territories."

The city's union leader, Bill Bryson, comments: "We stayed out of the issue until they started sending letters. It's gotten very sticky. We don't even talk any more.


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