Lee Pinkoson: Public safety should come first

The following is a Guest Column written by Alachua County Commission chairman Lee Pinkoson that ran in the Gainesville Sun today:
When it comes to fire/rescue, public safety should be the number one concern for both the Alachua County and City of Gainesville commissions.  Unfortunately, money is the driving force in our current discussions with the city regarding the Fire Service Assistance Agreement (FSAA).
It is important for both citizens and commissioners to understand the history of the FSAA. For decades, the two fire departments had been crossing jurisdictional lines to assist citizens. For decades, the county paid the city because they responded in the county more often. When the city successfully annexed the area around SW 20th Avenue, the financial dynamics changed. Due to the location of County Station 19, the county was now responding to more calls into the city.  For the first time, the city had to pay the county. Even though the annexation brought in more tax revenue, paying the county did not sit well with the city. This reversal of payment was the turning point for the FSAA. The conversation became about money instead of public safety.
Contrary to the spirit of the FSAA, the then city commission (completely different than the current commission) approved stationing a two-person squad at a nearby hotel to intercept calls normally handled by Station 19.  It was a move motivated strictly by money. The FSAA, as intended, was providing a high level of service to the citizens in this area. This breach of trust resulted in the pendulum swinging back to the city's favor to the tune of approximately $2 million per year.  This number does not include approximately $1 million in uncompensated responses currently provided by Station 19 into the city. The county decided that implementing the Fire Master Plan, which calls for new fire stations to serve the growing population in the unincorporated area, was a better use of tight dollars and would lessen the county’s dependence on the city’s fire department.
The FSAA expires on June 1st. The county has continued to be open to discussions on how to best serve the public.  In recent months, the county commission was rebuffed twice when suggesting that they meet with the city commission to discuss the agreement. Even at this eleventh hour, the county continues to work for a compromise that keeps the safety of our citizens as the number one objective in both the short and long term.
County Manager Lieberman recently sent a proposal to City Manager Lyons that includes terms that would be equitable to both parties, utilize resources efficiently, and provide a high level of service to our citizens. The plan includes:
1. The co-location/relocation of city and county resources to decrease the number of cross-jurisdictional responses. It would also be a positive move in the direction of consolidation, a move supported by our citizens. The city would save many millions of dollars by not having to build two stations.
2. The county will continue to implement its master plan, placing new stations in areas which will lessen the city’s responses into the county.
3. The manager proposed basing response reimbursement on the actual cost of a response, as opposed to including the fixed costs of operating and staffing a station. Including fixed costs in the reimbursement formula is inherently inequitable. Dividing the number of responses by the total time committed to incidents would be a fair and equitable arrangement.
4. With the deadline looming, the manager proffered a 90-day stop-gap agreement. This agreement will allow time for details to be finalized and brought to the respective commissions for approval.  During this period, cross-jurisdictional responses will be compensable to both parties and reimbursement will be based on the time committed to incidents.
The city and the county work successfully together on many issues. These successes most often go unnoticed. Due to differing perspectives, cities and counties sometimes disagree.  I am hopeful that in this case, for the safety of our citizens, we will put our heads together and resolve this issue.
Lee Pinkoson
Alachua County Commission Chairman

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