Fla. fire department merger approved

Supporters say the merger could save Jacksonville Beach taxpayers about $15 million over 10 years, and would provide better fire protection for the city


Teresa Stepzinski
The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. — The proposed merger of the Jacksonville Beach Fire Department and Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department appears close to actually happening after roughly a decade of on-and-off discussions.

Jacksonville Beach City Council on a 4-3 vote Monday night approved the potential merger, which now goes to Jacksonville City Council for approval.

The department covers about eight square miles including approximately 23,000 residents and numerous visitors. (Photo/ Jacksonville Beach Fire Department)
The department covers about eight square miles including approximately 23,000 residents and numerous visitors. (Photo/ Jacksonville Beach Fire Department)

It was the first of two major, unrelated public safety issues taken up by the council during its 2½-hour meeting. The other was appointment of a new police chief, who is a longtime member of the city police force.

Supporting the merger were Jacksonville Beach council members Chris Hoffman, Phil Vogelsang, Keith Doherty and Cory Nichols.

It's a matter of being proactive, said Hoffman, adding the merger would make their department more efficient and better trained.

"We're going to get a good service and yeah, it's going to save your tax money," Doherty said.

Opposing the merger were Mayor Charlie Latham and council members Georgette E. Dumont and Sandy Golding.

"If we approve this merger we're taking the first step in dismantling our city," said Latham, who staunchly opposes the merger, which he said is unnecessary. "To me, this merger is a major over-reaction to an over-stated problem from a few disgruntled employees of the Jacksonville Beach department."

Dumont and Golding questioned the level of service the city would get from Jacksonville, and said it's fallen short in other area such as animal control.

The merger decision came after a long discussion before a standing-room-only audience at City Hall. Earlier the council — in an identical 4-3 vote — rejected a motion by Latham to hold a referendum allowing Jacksonville Beach voters to decide the issue.

The Jacksonville council could take up the potential merger in July or August, Latham said.

Latham said a significant number of Jacksonville Beach residents say they don't want it. Residents have voiced their opinion — unsolicited — in a series of telephone calls, public speaker cards, emails and letters to city officials "in higher numbers than any other issue that we've tackled in the last 6½ years," he said.

"Eighty-four percent told us they didn't want this to happen. The citizens made it pretty clear they didn't want this to happen, and I stood with the citizens," Latham said.

Latham said the city received 270 pieces of correspondence on the potential merger. A total of 226 residents opposed the merger while 44 supported it. That's 84 percent opposed and 16 percent in favor of it, he said.

A recent University of North Florida poll showed Jacksonville Beach residents have mixed opinions about the matter. It showed 46 percent of those surveyed supported the idea of the Beaches municipality contracting with Jacksonville for fire and rescue services. However, 41 percent opposed the idea, while the remaining 13 percent didn't answer or were undecided, according to the poll.

The poll also showed the majority — 61 percent — of the participants favored the Jacksonville Beach City Council holding a referendum asking voters about the possible merger. Meanwhile, 26 percent didn't think a referendum should be held, and the remainder were undecided.

The Jacksonville Beach Fire Department is composed of 31 members including four in administration and 27 career staff. They operate out of two fire stations.

The department covers about eight square miles including approximately 23,000 residents and numerous visitors. It's jurisdiction extends from the Atlantic Ocean east to the Intracoastal Waterway to the west, Neptune Beach to the north to the St. Johns County line to the south.

As proposed in the merger, qualified Jacksonville Beach firefighters and emergency medical personnel would be offered a job with Jacksonville Fire and Rescue. Jacksonville Beach fire stations, vehicles and other equipment would belong to Jacksonville, which would be responsible for maintenance.

Supporters say the merger could save Jacksonville Beach taxpayers about $15 million over 10 years, and would provide better fire protection for the city, better firefighter training and improved advancement opportunities for personnel.

Until the merger issue is resolved, Jacksonville Beach can't hire a new permanent fire chief, City Manager Mike Staffopoulos said in an April 25 memo to the council arguing against the referendum.

In January, former Fire Chief David Whitmill received a no-confidence vote from the firefighters union and subsequently retired last month. The International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2622 in a letter to city leaders wrote that Whitmill had fostered an atmosphere of "hostility, retaliation and unethical behavior" among Jacksonville Beach firefighters.

Staffopoulos in his April memo said the absence of a permanent chief might impact the city's ability to recruit personnel. In addition, prolonging the decision by holding a referendum "will continue to erode the morale and relationships of department staff," he wrote.

"This issue has been discussed for numerous years and as it has gotten closer to a decision, the conflict between unionized and non-represented employees has increased," Staffopoulos said in the memo.

POLICE CHIEF APPROVED

In another public safety matter, the council approved the appointment of Cmdr. Gene Paul Smith as police chief. The 24-plus year Jacksonville Beach law enforcement veteran succeeds Pat Dooley, who resigned last year.

Effective immediately, Smith will lead the nationally accredited department with about 67 full-time police officers, 23 full-time civilians, and 12 part-time civilian employees.

Smith has served with the Jacksonville Beach police department about 24 years including 16 as a commander. He has a master's degree in management and a bachelor's in criminal justice. Smith has worked his way up through the department ranks, serving in the patrol, detective, communication supervision and various other capacities.

Staffopoulos recommended promoting Smith to chief, and noted he was the candidate of choice by two police department interview panels.

"He has strong technical, management and leadership attributes," Staffopoulos said in his recommendation letter. He also noted Smith was highly respected within the city including the police department. He also said Smith has attended numerous training sessions nationwide, obtained multiple technical certifications and been an instructor to new officers.

Smith was picked from a total of 67 applicants. Information regarding his proposed salary as chief wasn't immediately available Tuesday.

Teresa Stepzinski: (904) 359-4075

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©2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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