City skeptical on merging fire services with county


In this Jan. 26, 2012 file photo, Alachua County firefighters are shown at a ceremony welcoming new members.

Karen Voyles/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 10:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 10:23 p.m.

The Gainesville City Commission discussed potentially consolidating fire rescue services with Alachua County on Thursday, an issue that has come up many times before, but decided to take no action toward studying a merger.

The county sent a letter to the city earlier this year asking for the city's position on the possibility of consolidating their respective fire rescue services.

If the City Commission were interested in exploring a potential merging of fire services, city staff recommended the city and county jointly choose and pay for a consultant to do a study.

A consolidation study could cost an estimated $150,000, of which the city would pay half, according to Thursday's staff presentation.

Commissioner Todd Chase said he was interested in getting updated information on the community's fire services situation, although other commissioners expressed skepticism regarding consolidation.

"I do support trying to get fresh data and understand what's going on," Chase said.

The commission ultimately voted 4-1, with Chase in dissent and Mayor Ed Braddy and Commissioner Craig Carter absent, to authorize sending a letter to the County Commission informing the board they decided to take no action toward studying a merger.

Consolidating the city and county's fire services isn't a new idea. It has come up multiple times over the years.

There were in-depth discussions in the 2000s about creating a combined emergency services system, according to the staff presentation.

The County Commission brought up revisiting the merger issue in 2003, according to the presentation. However, the county didn't end up supporting a proposal from the city for a countywide merging of fire and EMS services under the city's governance.

The County Commission again requested there be discussion of consolidating fire services in 2010.

Commissioner Lauren Poe said Thursday he isn't interested in moving forward with the consolidation idea. A lot of little details add up to a big reason for him not supporting it, he said, mentioning the lower starting pay that county firefighters get compared to city firefighters as one example of a barrier to a merger.

If consolidation were to happen, he said he thought county residents eventually would end up with a much better fire department but it would come on the backs of Gainesville citizens.

"I don't see a path that leads to this being a good deal for the residents of Gainesville," he said.

Chase said he got the point, but noted that he is a county as well as a city resident.

Commissioner Randy Wells said he sees outright consolidation as a difficult route to take right now. The tougher decision is not to engage in the full exercise of looking into this issue unless there's belief that there will be a positive result.

Wells said he doesn't want to see what has happened before: A lot of effort put in without a successful result. He said he'd rather focus on smaller things they can do to develop a more cooperative relationship.

The division between county and city fire rescue services has come up several times in recent weeks as the Gainesville and Alachua County governments discussed what to do about county-owned Fire Station 19, which is located in an area annexed by the city back in 2009.

The county and city have an agreement stipulating they compensate each other for responding to medical and fire-related calls within their jurisdictions. That fiscal pendulum swung in the county's favor after the city's 2009 annexation, which made Fire Station 19 the closest responding unit to calls in that sector of Gainesville.

The city and county have had negotiations over how to handle Fire Station 19 but the issue is still unresolved.

The City Commission decided in June to establish a Gainesville Fire Rescue squad in Fire Station 19's territory in southwest Gainesville despite the county's request that the city not take any action regarding the fire station until after a forthcoming joint meeting on the matter.

Contact Morgan Watkins at 338-3104 or morgan.watkins@gainesville.com.

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