If it weren’t actually happening here in the Middle Keys, it might be funny.
For those who haven’t followed local government news, here’s the basic story. It was time this year for the City of Marathon and the City of Key Colony Beach to negotiate a new Fire/EMS services agreement. Key Colony Beach City Commissioners were put off at the start of negotiations by the tone of a letter from the City of Marathon. Wanting to explore their options, KCB solicited a proposal for Fire/EMS services from the County as well. After some discussions, Marathon came back with a five-year deal at a fixed cost of $525,000 per year that includes all the services, personnel, and equipment that Marathon has available in its Fire Department. (According to Marathon Fire Chief William Wagner, that includes six firefighters, 25-plus volunteer firefighters, two additional part-time firefighters, and three full-time staff positions. In addition, Marathon has three ambulances, two fire engines, one 75-foot ladder truck and a 3,000-gallon tanker/pumper.) In contrast, Monroe County offered a three-year proposal that includes just two firefighters, one truck, and one ambulance at an average cost of $541,300 per year.
Saying that it had nothing at all to do with the desire to shove it up Marathon’s posterior, three Key Colony Beach City Commissioners made a “business decision” to go with the Monroe County proposal, a proposal that will cost Key Colony taxpayers more money and provide less than one-third the services that would have come with the Marathon contract.
That’s some funny business.
Unfortunately, it’s not the more mundane municipal services in question. It’s the all-important life-safety services, and elected officials have a duty to their constituents to make decisions that won’t unnecessarily put them at further risk. It’s still unclear whether Key Colony Beach’s fire insurance rates will rise because of the potential of a worse ISO rating. And Florida Administrative Code requires a minimum of four responders to any fire. KCB will only have two on call at any given time.
Putting aside these serious concerns, there’s still the question of the inequity of Key Colony Beach getting a much better deal from Monroe County than other county taxpayers. Currently, those residents in the County’s Fire and Ambulance District 1 (unincorporated areas of the Lower and Middle Keys along with the City of Layton) pay 1.87 mills for just Fire/EMS services. (The entire City of Marathon millage, including Fire/EMS, is just 1.685.) Key Colony Beach, not exactly a poor community, will end up paying less than half of what other county residents are paying for the same services. If I were a resident of Big Pine, or Conch Key, or Ramrod, or Long Key, I’d be more than a little miffed that my Fire and Ambulance District 1 tax dollars were going to subsidize services for Key Colony Beach.
The Monroe County Commission is scheduled to decide the Key Colony Beach Fire/EMS issue at their meeting on August 18 in Key Largo. If they choose to approve the proposal, it will result in budget problems for Marathon, drastically reduced services for Key Colony Beach, and an indefensible inequity for taxpayers in Monroe County. In the short term, the County Commission should not approve the proposal, and should suggest instead that Key Colony and Marathon work things out. If the County must provide Fire/EMS services to KCB, then it needs to be at the same rate that other county taxpayers pay for those same services.
In the long term, the County needs to do the right thing by their taxpayers. Islamorada and Marathon have established well-staffed professional Fire/EMS departments that could easily handle the unincorporated enclaves between their respective municipal boundaries. Local governments need to put public safety and taxpayer concerns ahead of abjectly stupid turf wars. There is no need to duplicate expensive services and continue to charge taxpayers more money than necessary, especially as essential county and municipal services continue to face the budget axe. It’s long past time for logic and common sense to enter this debate. Our County Commissioners could be heroes on this issue. Let’s see if it happens.