Fire Fight: Mayor and Firefighter Unions Joust Over Little Gables Annexation

Coral Gables mayor Vince Lago spars with a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue union president over Little Gables annexation at an Aug. 24 commission meeting.
Coral Gables mayor Vince Lago spars with a Miami-Dade Fire Rescue union president over Little Gables annexation at an Aug. 24 commission meeting. Screenshot via City of Coral Gables
The prospect of Coral Gables annexing the Little Gables community has already generated years of heated debate, but tensions flared further in recent weeks thanks to a public conflict between Coral Gables’ mayor and two local firefighter unions that say annexation is a dangerous plan.

The 205-acre community, which abuts the northern edge of Coral Gables, is an unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County that relies on the county for fire and police services. Some Little Gables residents have long argued in favor of annexation, claiming it would remedy slow police and fire response times.

On one side of the debate is Vince Lago, mayor of Coral Gables, who is leading the charge on absorbing Little Gables. On the other is Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) union president William McAllister, who opposes annexation of the community long served by MDFR.

At an August 24 commission meeting, both men made fiery speeches about their stance on annexation. They accused one another of lying about their motivations in the discussion. "Don't call into question whether I'm committed to ensuring that our residents are safe," Lago said to McAllister at the meeting.

Coral Gables has tried for decades to incorporate the neighborhood, to no avail. The Miami-Dade County commission rejected the city's most recent annexation attempt in 2019 for fear that the proposal would displace elderly trailer-park residents in Little Gables.

Lago tells New Times he is spearheading the city's latest annexation effort to address the public safety concerns and improve response times in the neighborhood.

"This is about public safety and about securing our borders," Lago says. "We have the best response times in Miami-Dade County. That's why the residents from High Pines and Ponce Davis have been calling me nonstop saying, 'Please annex us also.'"

McAllister, meanwhile, says Lago is wrong and that the annexation plan has little to do with safety. In fact, McAllister claims, expanding Coral Gables’ boundaries will only put people at more risk.

“This is bad for public safety. This is going to cause a degradation of service within the municipal boundaries of Coral Gables because they already can't service the needs at the levels that are being requested now,” McAllister tells New Times.

McAllister points out that Coral Gables currently has only 32 firefighters on duty each day – the same number they’ve had since 1993, he says. While that may have made sense 20 years ago, Coral Gables has grown far beyond that capacity in the past two decades, McAllister argues.

David Perez, president of the firefighters union in Coral Gables, concurs with McAllister. Perez’s union has asked the city for additional staffing for more than a year now, wary of how high-rise building projects throughout the City Beautiful could put more strain on the department.

“If there aren't additional numbers in firefighter staffing, you’re spreading your resources even thinner,” Perez tells New Times.

At its last budget meeting, the city committed to adding five more firefighters every year for the next two years and then six in 2025. Lago points to this as an example of the city's commitment to public safety.

"We're giving them the firefighters; we have three brand new fire stations; we're having a fourth brand new fire station [at Sunset Drive]," Lago tells New Times. "Guys, what else do you want?"

Even with the promise of five more staffers next year, McAllister and Perez say Coral Gables still doesn’t have enough staff to meet national standards for fire safety.

According to standards from the National Fire Protection Association, a minimum of 42 firefighters must be dispatched in the event of a call about a fire in a high-rise building of seven or more floors.

With current staffing numbers, Coral Gables Fire Department has to call for additional manpower from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue, through a process known as mutual aid, to meet that minimum requirement, an issue McAllister says will only get worse if Coral Gables takes in even more land.

By way of example, the union chief points to a high-rise fire at 225 South Dixie Highway this past August, when the Coral Gables Fire Department dispatched all 32 of its personnel to the emergency and had to call on MDFR to man its firehouses and respond to 911 calls while they were busy.

“During that entire period while they were looking for what ended up being a dumpster fire, we staffed their stations and responded to emergency medical calls,” McAllister says.

A Coral Gables official at the August commission meeting refuted McAllister's statement that the city often relies on the county for mutual aid, contending that the county actually relies on Coral Gables for help more often.

On and off the dais, both sides of the annexation scuffle claim their opponents are only in this fight for the money.

Lago argues McAllister is only against annexation because it would reduce tax revenue for the county fire department. According to a recent Miami Herald report, a 2018 memo indicated MDFR would lose $523,473 in tax revenue if annexation was to go through.

"The issue is very simple. This is about money for the fire union and the intimidation tactics that they use in an effort to get their way," Lago tells New Times.

McAllister retorts that MDFR’s latest annual budget affords the department more than $600 million in operating expenses. Any decrease in revenue from Little Gables would be negligible, he claims. “Annexation won’t result in any station closures, job losses, or loss of service for MDFR. This is not about money,” McAllister says.

Caught in the middle is Perez, the Coral Gables Fire Department’s union president, who is contractually obligated to oppose the annexation.

In 2009, the union presidents from each of Miami-Dade County’s six fire departments signed an agreement to respect one another's jurisdictions and to speak against any efforts to have their own departments overstep into another’s boundaries.

“Be it further resolved, that IAFF Locals 1210, 3638, 1102, 587, 1510, and 1403 and their respective officers and successor officers, agree to openly oppose... any government or fire department proposal that pursues any merger, bidding for service, annexation, or consolidation of any fire department or component service within the boundaries of Miami-Dade County,” reads the contract.

Perez says he is bound by the agreement and has to stand against Lago’s push for Little Gables because it falls within MDFR’s jurisdiction.

“I have to abide by that contract. We cannot advocate for annexation,” he tells New Times.

Annexation will continue to be a topic of discussion once the new city commission takes shape this November.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos
Naomi Feinstein is a fellow at Miami New Times. She spent the last year in New York City getting her master’s degree at the Columbia School of Journalism. She is also a proud alum of the University of Miami.
Contact: Naomi Feinstein

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