City, county still without agreement on fire station

Published: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 7:59 p.m.

A county-owned fire station inside Gainesville continues to cause money concerns for the city.

City officials consider the area their turf and have a plan to turn the tables financially so the county is paying the city to respond to medical calls in the area.

But before the City Commission decides whether to put the plan in place, commissioners want to sit down with the County Commission to try to reach an agreement on the future ownership and operation of the fire station and the adjacent park at the intersection of Southwest 20th Avenue and 43rd Street.

A 2009 annexation put the county-owned Fire Station 19 and Forest Park inside the city limits.

That annexation also made the county-owned station the closest responding unit to fire and medical calls at an annexed area that includes Butler Plaza and the apartments along Southwest 20th.

Under an agreement in which each government pays the other to respond to fire and medical calls in its jurisdiction, the city has since been paying the county several hundred thousand dollars a year. City Fire Chief Gene Prince said the current annual amount is $624,000.

His proposal to commissioners Thursday was to start a “pilot” program where the city placed a vehicle and crew of two in the area to respond to medical calls in the city and county. The county would continue to handle ambulance transport, as it does countywide, and respond to fires. Prince estimated that would result in the county now paying the city some $568,000 a year to respond to medical calls — a roughly $1.2 million “swing.”

Because county officials previously said there was no room at Station 19 for a city vehicle, Prince said he was contemplating renting a nearby apartment.

Some commissioners said it made sense for the city to provide services within the city.

“That is our turf, but the station is not ours,” Commissioner Yvonne Hinson-Rawls said.

At the same time, all the commissioners said they did not want a confrontational situation with the County Commission.

Commissioner Randy Wells said he would like to see things “cooperatively done with the county.”

There were also misgivings about using an apartment as a makeshift station for an emergency medical services vehicle crew.

In the end, commissioners unanimously voted for Prince and staff to prepare a plan but for the city to hold off on implementing it until city and county commissioners can discuss the issue at a yet-to-be-scheduled joint meeting.

Commissioner Todd Chase said that, arguments for the city providing services in the city aside, he felt staff brought forward the issue for one reason.

“Honestly it comes down to money,” Chase told Prince. “You gave me a lot of reasons, but it’s about money.”

Back and forth talks between the city and the county over the fire station and Forest Park date back years. In March 2012, then County Commission Chair Paula DeLaney sent then Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe a letter requesting that the city take over ownership and maintenance of Forest Park since the annexation placed it in the city. Lowe then responded with a letter requesting that the county give the city the fire station. Neither of those changes of ownership has taken place.

Prince said he spent several months in talks with County Fire Rescue Chief Ed Bailey about the station but Bailey said in March that then Interim County Manager Rick Drummond had told him to end the negotiations.

At Thursday’s meeting, Deputy County Fire Rescue Chief Bill Northcutt asked city commissioners to hold off on implementing Prince’s plan in order to revisit talks.

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