County is courting city on fire merger


Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 11:03 p.m.
Gainesville City Commissioner Tony Domenech essentially accepted a proposal of marriage on Thursday from Alachua County Commissioner Rodney Long.
Long wants the county and city fire and emergency services departments joined into one, and he wants the city to run the combined system.
"I am in complete agreement," said Domenech during an informal meeting of both commissions, minus Mayor Tom Bussing and City Commissioner Ed Braddy, regarding the on-again, off-again fire merger.
The only problem is any fire department marriage requires at least six "I dos" - three from each board.
It's still unclear if there will be a long-term commitment. Talks fell apart last summer when both commissions were considering creating a special district that would run the combined system and tax property owners to pay for it.
The scenario is different this time. "I'm willing to give (county fire and emergency services) to the city - everything," Long said.
It's Long's goal to get the county out of the business of providing services traditionally delivered by cities.
He proposed funding the county's part with a "Municipal Services Taxing Unit" dedicated for fire and emergency services, similar to the separate line item added to the tax bill last year for law enforcement. The MSTU is paid by residents in the unincorporated parts of the county.
While combining two departments that do virtually the same thing system sounds simple, the more than a decade of debate is evidence that it is indeed a tricky task.
Employee salaries and pensions have to match up. Some equipment may not be compatible. And potentially higher operational costs have to be considered.
"We will have initial activation costs," Gainesville City Commissioner Warren Nielsen said. "We have to have the wisdom to deal with that."
The two boards have tentatively agreed to another joint meeting early in February to discuss the merger as well as other issues of mutual concern, including annexation and the gas tax.
Janine Young Sikes can be reached at 337-0327 or sikesj@gvillesun.com.

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