Glades County board to seek aid on fire protection

See Commissioner Donna Storter Long’s report of the County Board’s Jan. 8 discussion about fire protection at … Click Here.

MOORE HAVEN — Deputy County Manager for Public Safety Bob Jones presented a report to the Glades County commissioners Monday night, Jan. 28, that put some numbers to their discussion at a recent workshop of instituting a full-time fire-rescue department. And after another hour or so of talking over the ideas, they came to a consensus that they’ll need the guidance of some outside experts or consultants on their best courses of action. Although some expressed reservations, they appeared to be swayed toward acting by public comment.

Several residents of the county came to the podium to speak, some relating scary stories and putting faces to the dread of dialing 911 and getting either no assistance or help that comes too late. All spoke in general support of an additional, non-property tax for fire protection.

Mr. Jones laid out three alternatives that detailed potential budgets for: five fire-rescue stations with 30 full-time firefighter/emergency medical technician positions (FF/EMTs), three shift officers and (optionally) 15 paramedics; four stations with 24 FF/EMTs, three shift officers and a dozen optional paramedics; and three stations with 18 FF/EMTs, three shift officers and nine optional paramedics. He listed all the ancillary costs and totaled them, including for the paramedic positions, then figured out what a fire-rescue assessment per year would be for a Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU) setup. He also had to consider what the county already budgets, including $100,000 per year for Okeechobee County’s mutual aid protection of central and northern Glades County, including Buckhead Ridge/Lakeport, and income from ambulance calls.

He broke down the three potential budgets’ costs in this way:
• 5-station: total cost, $2,288,090 per year; MSBU tax, about $448/year.
• 4-station: total cost, $1,880,442; MSBU tax, about $368.
• 3-station: total cost, $1,484,290; MSBU tax, about $290.

The body of his report to the commissioners cautioned them that it would be a complex undertaking, but Mr. Jones still began with a note of optimism. “This will be a very ambitious endeavor to accomplish that will consist of several projects to come together, but I feel sure with the ability and talent of our staff, it is by no means beyond our ability.”

He said that of the three options he detailed, the best for all of Glades County now would be the middle-of-the-road plan calling for stations in Buckhead Ridge, Lakeport, Moore Haven and “one on the west end of the county.” If the maximum plan were selected, “the fifth station, we discussed putting on the south side” of the Caloosahatchee River, Mr. Jones said.

He included in his report a note that the county would seek a couple of different types of grants — the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) Grants and the AFG (Assistance to Firefighters Grants) Program, administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Mr. Jones’ assessment stated, on the five-station plan: “If able to attain the SAFER Grant, which will cover 75 percent of staff cost to include benefits for two years with a county match of only 25 percent … would create a reserve amount of $1,573,657 per year for two years, (a total of) $3,147,314. Year three is covered at 35 percent, $734,331; (for a grand) total, $3,881,645.” It added, though, “unsure if grant will cover all 30 positions.”

For the four-station plan, the SAFER Grant would create a reserve of $3,157,842 over the three years; or, for the three-station plan, it would provide a $2,505,436 cushion. He also explained to the commissioners: “None of this eliminates volunteers; there’s not enough manpower. Mutual aid arrangements would play into it.” But, he noted, if the county board wanted to proceed in that direction, staff would need direction and to get started on gathering documentation as soon as possible.

Commission Chairman Tim Stanley, a Buckhead resident, said he wasn’t sure, in looking at the $30,000 study that had been done in 2014 by Government Services Group, whether an MSBU could be used to finance paramedics. Mr. Jones wasn’t certain, either, so that was one question that he and County Manager Martin Murphy had to jot down for further research.
“Me personally, I think we’re going to have to get more in-depth on it before we say how many stations we’ll need,” Mr. Stanley said, noting that Mr. Murphy had talked with some consultants already.
He told commissioners that in checking with the Center for Public Safety Management, “they said they’d be willing to come up and talk to the board about how to proceed … and how to determine what would be an appropriate staffing, equipment and manpower level, at minimal cost.” He added that they would be able to visit and meet with officials in February, “and essentially lay out somewhat of a road map that, if we want to pursue this, things that we need to check off as we progress … so that we don’t overlook anything that may surprise us. I think they can give us some good advice going forward.”
Commissioner Weston Pryor said he thought “much of the community cannot afford this, whether it’s $100 or $400 a year. We have to do something for the low-income folks.” Commissioner Donna Storter Long, for whose constituents this has been a big issue, said certain exemptions could be allowed, but she wanted to press forward.
Commissioner John Ahern said he thought it would be a good idea to get consultants’ help. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” he said, suggesting they could get ideas from what Hendry County, the cities of Clewiston and LaBelle and officials in other counties such as Lee and Highlands are doing.
Commissioner Donald Strenth pointed out that the top cost of $448 per year still was “chicken feed,” at roughly $1.22 per day. Mr. Pryor said, “But there’s no way we can make everyone happy unless we have like eight stations.”
The people who stood later to tell personal stories, however, were unanimously in favor of doing “something, anything” to fill Glades County’s public safety void.
Chairman Stanley said, “That’s why we need to get consultants in to give us some study of this. We need to get the best bang for our buck.” He promised that the board would pursue whatever it found to be the best option for all county residents.
Mr. Jones said that even a minimal plan, “no way … it’s going to solve the whole issue (but) it’s going to help tremendously compared to what we have today.”
South Lake O reporter/editor Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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