Fire budget fans flames

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Tempers clash at meeting over contract, coverage issues

By Lou Elliott Jones

Chiefland City Manager Kevin Gay took his request for more money in Chiefland Fire Rescue's contract with the Levy County Commission to its budget workshop on Tuesday and what resulted was a fiery clash of words  followed by a cooling off period — until the commission's next meeting on Sept. 3.

Before Gay took the podium the commission struck deals with Williston and Cedar Key to provide small increases in their budgets for equipment but not personnel. 

Cedar Key Fire Chief Robert Robinson asked for $4,000 to pay for personnel, money to be equally matched by the city. But the commission instead voted to provide $5,000 for materials and equipment. The money will be provided in addition to the $64,539 paid by the county under contract for providing coverage for unincorporated county areas surrounding Cedar Key and providing mutual aid to county fire districts. 

Williston Assistant Fire Chief Danny Wallace asked for a  6 percent increase — about $12,000 — but the commission said it would only approve a one-time allotment of $12,600 for materials and equipment.

Williston receives $201,226 under its county contract to provide coverage for the unincorporated county areas surrounding Williston and mutual aid for county fire districts.

“We would prefer the increase on the contract, but we can accept that,” Wallace said.

Both payments to Cedar Key and Williston are to be “one-time” payments, not part of the contract for services, according to the motions made for each by Commissioner Danny Stevens of Williston (R-District 5).

The two agreements were a less than subtle message for Gay who was asking for $48,000 — about a 25 percent increase in county funding — to cover personnel expenses, a need he indicated was created by the number of calls that had to be answered by his department.

Gay was accompanied by Assistant Chief Gene Stockman and Firefighter Colby Perryman, but not Fire Chief Harris.

Commission Chair Ryan Bell of Chiefland (R-District 4) introduced Gay saying the two “got off on rocky footing and things got better. He's a good guy and hopefully you will listen to him.”

But it was not long before Gay and the commissioners clashed, and even County Attorney Anne Bast Brown asked Gay why he was being verbally combative with her.

Gay apologized, said he was nervous speaking in public, and tended to speak and respond quickly in that situation. 

The city manager did make his position clear: He wants to replace the current contract with three contracts – one that provides a fee for service calls, another that provides for mutual aid and one for automatic mutual aid. 

“We will request one that is 'fee for service' for District 7,” he said. He also asked the commission for the $48,000 budget increase saying “Our volunteer fireman are tired of being on call 24 hours a day, leaving their families in Walmart, leaving their families at dinner and going not just in District 7 but beyond it.” 

Gay has said on several occasions that city firefighters have been called out and arrived first on the scene or were the only ones on the scene.

His clash with Brown came when he mentioned not renewing the same contract and Brown said there is an automatic renewal. She said she did not have a copy of the contract with her. Later in the meeting Gay pulled out a copy of the contract and said. “We have until the end of August to cancel the contract.”

County Commissioner Danny Stevens of Williston (R-District 5) who sparred with Gay on several issues, said the county was not likely to change the contract terms because it is the same contract it has with other municipal fire departments in the county. 

Stevens questioned how Chiefland only has a 15-member department, including full-time paid and part-time paid employees and volunteers while Williston, which is slightly smaller has 30-plus employees. 

The county's contract with Chiefland provides $199,367 for services in District 7 and the unincorporated county. The contract with Williston is for $204,754 for services to the county.

In a letter to the county commission signed by Gay and Chiefland Vice Mayor Teresa Barron, the city said it wants the county to replace more than the $30,000 cut last year. The cut came when the county cancelled its contract with the Town of Otter Creek, which no longer had a fire department and had been giving the county money to Chiefland for coverage of County District 4, an unincorporated area. The town also paid Chiefland $300 for coverage of the town.

Stevens and Bell made clear to Gay that the county ended its contract with Otter Creek, it did not cut Chiefland's funding from the county. 

“The county did not have a contract with City of Chiefland (for Otter Creek),” Stevens said. 

“We're getting $36,000 less,” Stockman said. 

Gay said he understood that the letter and an attached packet of information may have  had a negative reception. “Some people did not take it very well,” he said. “That was not my intent.” Gay said he wanted to help the people of Fire District 7 and Levy County. 

Stevens was not finished with Gay. Noting that although the city manager started work in late May, the city's proposed fire budget was due June 28 and it was not received until Aug. 15. 

Gay said he asked Chief Harris to not submit a budget so he could be better informed and submit it at a later date. 

“This request is outside of that time line,” Stevens said. 

Gay said, “I'd like to see something in writing saying that.”

Brown said the contract says the city has to submit a budget proposal. 

Stevens concluded, “Your coming this late into the game is challenging to us.”

Stevens made a motion to give the city the same amount of money as in this year's contract. The motion was seconded by Commissioner Mike Joyner of Morriston (R-District 3). 

The motion failed on a 2-3 vote with Bell and Commissioners John Meeks of Bronson (R-District 1) and Chad Johnson of Chiefland (R-District 2) dissenting. 

Gay told the commissioners he wants to work with them. “We want to continue covering the county. We want to continue to help the county,” he said. “But we have our own budget restrictions.”

Then the discussion turned to how much Otter Creek is proposing to pay for coverage of the town. The town will pay $45 per residence to Chiefland for fire service, which one commissioner noted is 11 miles from Chiefland. 

In contrast, the county collects a $90 assessment on each residential parcel for fire coverage. 

Meeks asked if the City of Chiefland is increasing the fire budget and Gay said the city was putting in a $30,000 increase. “I just want to make sure you're not balancing your budget on the county,” Meeks said. 

Gay said he expected the county would grow its fire department and eventually take over coverage of District 7.

“If I was heading up the county fire department, I would think we would grow into covering the county and Chiefland is going to cover Chiefland,” Gay said. 

In wrapping up the discussion, Joyner told Gay, “You are going to have to do more with less.”

Meeks said, “I want to help y'all but I just want to be clear that y'all's request is almost double of what everybody else is requesting from the county.”

He added, “$48,000 at this time, with the budget the way it is, is a little bit ridiculous.” Meeks said there might be questions how the city was spending its money. 

“If I was a taxpayer I'd have to ask where you are spending the money,” Gay said. 

Stevens said Chiefland's attorney, Norm Fugate, might need to answer that question. 

Gay, pointing to Stockman, said the assistant chief is a citizen of Levy County.

“You're a politician and you're answering to him,” Gay said. 

Stevens, who said he had concerns about the county money being used to pay city employees, said, “I don't think that its the county's responsibility to provide the labor.”

Bell said Gay needed to be on the next meeting agenda and the commission needed to come along and the county needed a letter from the city commission indicating whether it was renewing or terminating the contract with the county, “because all of this has been for naught if there isn't going to be a contract.”

Stockman said, “We're not saying there's not going to be a contract we're saying there's going to be change.”

Bell added that he did not think the city commioners were on board with changes in the contract saying he spoke to City Commissioner Rollin Hudson Tuesday morning and he knew nothing of replacing the one contract with three new ones.