Fla. FD getting 16 extra firefighters to help weary crews

Fort Lauderdale Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr sought to boost staffing to reduce overtime hours and 'wear and tear' on members

Susannah Bryan
South Florida Sun-Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — An 11th hour demand for more firefighters and extra cash for non-profits worked.

City Manager Chris Lagerbloom found the money to hire 16 new firefighters without leaving a gap in next year’s Fort Lauderdale’s $401 million budget. The firefighters are expected to cost around $2 million a year.

Commissioners signed off on the plan Monday night 5-0, approving the budget and last-minute changes.

Fort Lauderdale already has 24 cadets in training to help fill vacancies in the department.

But Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr wanted to boost staffing by 16 firefighters to help cut down on the overtime hours being put in by the city’s 380 firefighters.

The fire department’s overtime payouts this year have gone over budget by $3.2 million, partly because of the pandemic and partly because people are out sick or on vacation.

The 16 new hires will also reduce “the wear and tear on the firefighters working several hours of overtime … when they’re just worn out,” Kerr told commissioners Monday.

Lagerbloom initially told the chief no when she asked to boost staffing.

But last week, Commissioner Robert McKinzie insisted the city manager find the money.

The 16 new firefighters will cost taxpayers $850,000 next fiscal year assuming they start work in April, six months into the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That’s about how long it will take to recruit, train and hire 16 new firefighters, Lagerbloom said.

Here’s how he found the money: Instead of spending $1.77 million on 15 Advanced Life Support defibrillators next year, the city can finance the expense over a seven-year period at a cost of $300,000 a year.

Under Lagerbloom’s budget, homeowners will pay the same tax rate and $311 fire fee as last year.

Fort Lauderdale’s base tax rate has not changed in 15 years, remaining stable at $412 per $100,000 assessed property value — one of the lowest in Broward County.

City officials warned that streak might end in 2023.

Fort Lauderdale was also generous to another group hit hard by the pandemic: Non-profits and charities.

Taxpayers will contribute more than $2.55 million to non-profit groups next year. But the city might have to say no in 2023, city officials warned.

“We’ve been very generous this year,” Mayor Dean Trantalis said. “But I’m not in favor of raising our [tax] rate to support the non-profits. I don’t see us being able to maintain that in future years.”

Groups included in the donation lineup included Jack and Jill Children’s Center, NSU Museum of Arts, Museum of Discovery and Science, the Stranahan House, Bonnet House, International Swimming Hall of Fame, ArtServe and Florida Children’s Theatre.

Fort Lauderdale needs to start saving up to replace its aging Fiveash Regional Water Treatment Plant.

The new plant, projected to cost an estimated $432 million, is expected to break ground in 2026.

To help pay for it, water rates will rise 5% per year over the next seven years.

The average consumer would pay an extra $5.38 a month next year. By 2026, that would increase to an extra $7.21 a month.

©2021 South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Visit sun-sentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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