City-county fire rescue merger is proposed


Published: Wednesday, January 19, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 18, 2005 at 10:49 p.m.
Yet another stab at a merged fire rescue service - which could save Alachua County an estimated $550,000 a year - may be in the offing as a result of a master plan developed for the County Commission.
Consultants will present the plan to the county and municipalities at a joint meeting Feb. 3, but county commissioners got a brief report on it for preliminary discussion Tuesday.
Commission reactions to the recommendations were mixed.
"I like what I saw as far as a combination of some sort of joint board as probably the way we want to go," Commissioner Lee Pinkoson said. "It's not going to be easy because there are a lot of political land mines. And it does mean we lose some control.
"But we have to keep our eye on the ultimate objective - that people be served as well as possible."
Others believe a different approach is needed, including the county curbing its fire rescue operations.
"Fire rescue is one of those quintessential urban services that the county has difficulty providing with the same efficiency that municipalities do," Commissioner Mike Byerly said. "This is one of those services we need to look seriously at us curtailing. I would like to see us move in the direction of devolving some of these services back to the municipalities."
Alachua County and Gainesville now have separate fire rescue departments. Most other cities in the county have small departments, some of which include volunteer staffers.
The county hired Emergency Services Consulting to develop the master plan. All fire departments in the county were examined for their staffing, response times, equipment and other factors.
Recommended is a full legal merger. It would save an estimated $550,000 annually for the next 20 years. Funding would be by a special tax, and a board would oversee operations, a setup similar to the Alachua County Library District.
Other strengths cited by the consultants are stability of the operation and a reduction of political complexity.
The lone weakness is a removal of some control.
Two other options were maintaining the current fire-rescue system and consolidating operations.
Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to merge the Gainesville and Alachua County departments. They have been spurred in part by the extensive growth of the unincorporated western urban fringe of Gainesville and the stress that has put on county services. The mergers have failed because the city and county could not come to terms over personnel, funding and other matters.
County commissioners hope to meet with Gainesville city commissioners before the Feb. 3 countywide meeting to try to gauge how they feel about a joint fire rescue service.
Cindy Swirko can be reached at 374-5024 or swirkoc@gvillesun.com.

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