Susan Bottcher: Fire merger is no magic solution
Published: Thursday, July 17, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 16, 2014 at 2:45 p.m.
Advocating for the unification of fire services is being done on intuition alone without close consideration of the facts. There is an unsubstantiated assumption that somehow unification would magically improve the delivery of services and save money.
It is important to remind everyone that there is already an efficient and seamless delivery of services: the closest fire station or the unit closest to the emergency responds, regardless of whether it is a county or a city department. Unification wouldn't change that or provide any improved delivery of service. It could, however, have a detrimental effect on Gainesville Fire Rescue's recent Insurance Services Office (ISO) upgrade to 2 since the level of service in rural Alachua County is different (ISO 3 to 9) than in urban and suburban Gainesville.
This is important to homeowners within the city since your insurance premiums are rated, in part, on your local fire department's ISO rating: the better the rating, the lower your premiums.
The other assumption is unification would save money. Right off the bat, it's a hard sell that growing a governmental department (in this case doubling or tripling its size) is a money-saver.
Closely reviewing the back-up materials for tonight's City Commission meeting shows the pay and benefits differences between the city and county fire departments. In order to realize any savings they would be required to slash the pay and benefits of the city firefighters. And that cannot be done unilaterally (i.e. by a vote of commissioners) since pay and benefits are required to be negotiated with the bargaining units within Gainesville and Alachua County fire rescue. The alternative would be to increase the pay and benefits on the county fire rescue side which erases any chance of cost savings.
The bottom line is these "turf battles" are due to elected officials and governmental staff ignoring the long-standing written agreements between the city and the county. The Annexation Transition Agreement was crafted, vetted, voted on and put in place precisely to avoid (or at least minimize) such turf battles. The agreement anticipated the complexities of transferring certain services from the county to the city upon annexations and provides the steps and accommodations for both entities.
Its time for the county to honor the agreement. They need to let go of the idea that Fire Station 19, which has been within Gainesville city limits for several years, should be a money-making scheme for the county.
Public safety services such as law enforcement, fire rescue and emergency medical technicians exist to protect the public. They are not now and were never intended to be a revenue source for any governmental entity.
Susan Bottcher is a former Gainesville city commissioner.