I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Fixing the Fire Service Budgeting In Escambia County Part II

Is there a way to more intelligently budget for the fire service in Escambia County?  Answer--yes...

It is disappointing when a subject of universal community importance and concern becomes weaponized against those of us that make policy and set budgets using limited resources. 

Unfortunately this happens and it happens frequently in politics at the local level. 

When I was a school board member, when negotiations were not going the way the teacher's union wanted them to go, our meetings would become packed with union members wearing red shirts.  We would have dozens of speakers warning of the dire consequences of not adequately funding education.  Some speakers would become quite animated and aggressive.  It was ugly.  We got through these events, though. We compromised, and education in Escambia County continued.  But at no time did we ever NOT value teachers and education--we just had to make tough budget decisions.

Then in my first year as a county commissioner, the BCC was ridiculed and attacked viciously and unprofessionally in commercials, online, and on billboards when we did not immediately acquiesce to unrealistic and unsustainable salary increase demands from the Sheriff's department.  We went back and forth, did mediation, and eventually we reached a compromise agreement and a 4-year deal. We got the Law Enforcement Trust process fixed and we increased salaries---  But no matter what anyone said about us, no matter who said the board didn't respect and value law enforcement--those statements were always lies and that rhetoric was always pure propaganda--none of it was ever true.  (Unfortunately some very gullible folks actually believed this.  Sadly, some still do.  But it wasn't true--isn't now and it never was.)

So now we come to 2019 and the fire department budget is in the red.  Union negotiations are going on and some members of the career firefighter ranks are pushing us for more resources.  Some are getting aggressive online and at the dais.

Are there legitimate concerns about fire service equipment--yes?  And yes, the MSBU is not fully funding the budget of the fire service.

So now what?

Some folks would just love us to raise tax rates on command.  They say "we need the money, now raise taxes!"

But I'm never going to vote to raise the year over year tax rate on Escambia county property owners if there are other viable solutions to budget issues. I've never voted to increase rates in 12 years in public office--and I'm not starting now. We have to live within our budgets just like households and small businesses do.  And I do believe there are viable options available apart from raising year-over-year tax rates.


As I said in Part I of this series, we need to take some steps to help our yearly fire service fund increases become more predictable and larger--I went through some steps to do this in this earlier post.

But now I want to take it a step further and mention some additional measures that I feel need to be taken to make the agency more efficient going forward.

--First, we have to cut the bureaucratic red tape that is currently creating an unnecessary blockage in the training pipeline (e.g. right now there is a backlog of at least 15 additional volunteer firefighters that only need a live-burn certification to be fully qualified to run calls.  I'm told some of these volunteers have been waiting for 5 months for this certification. Some have gone or are going to neighboring counties for this training because they cannot get through the bureaucracy here in Escambia--which if true is unacceptable.  One knowledgeable individual with whom I spoke had a stark assessment of the reason for the hold up "They can't afford to pay the stipends if all the

volunteers get certified and qualify for the stipend--it would come out of the same pot that funds the career firefighters!")  Economics 101: if you want to create more demand for career firefighters, this can easily be done by reducing the supply of trained volunteers or by marginalizing the volunteers...This issue needs to get fixed and fixed ASAP.

--We must find a way to better integrate and utilize the volunteers we do have (e.g. allowing them to run calls instead of not allowing them to work side by side with career firefighters even though both volunteer and career firefighters have the same certifications)  Again--having trained volunteers willing to work in our community  is the most economical and practical way to run this fire service if we have willing and able volunteers!  I support the volunteers AND the career firefighters.

--At volunteer stations (Like Station 2 in Beulah) that are getting dinged for alleged response time issues and deficiencies--how about stationing an EMS unit to take some of the sick calls??--instead of forcing this station to run sick calls with the fire engine where an injured patient cannot be even be transported until an EMS unit arrives?  This needs to be explored.


In addition to implementing some common sense solutions like the ones in this post and in my previous post--we have to debunk the myths that are being put forth as truths by folks that ought to know better--because there is some disinformation being presented as fact.

Folks that ought to know better are now online on some social media chat sites assailing the BCC for the acquisition of property for a new library in District 1. (District 1 is the only BCC district that does not have a public library)  Firefighters who hold positions of leadership within their union are saying the library should not be funded because "critical fire infrastructure is needed first."  But here is the problem with propaganda like that.  We have a library MSTU that fully funded the District 1 library purchase on Mobile Hwy, and this funding source will also pay for the Design of this new facility.  These library MSTU funds CANNOT, HOWEVER be used for the fire service--so this line of attack is illegitimate and ill-informed.   It's certainly a disappointment to see someone online trashing the idea of a new library while overtly pushing the fiction that somehow the funds could have been used for fire service needs.  Here is a newsflash:  These are restricted funds, so the former HR guy and the union guy ought to know this.  If they didn't before, hopefully someone will tell them so they will know now.

So yes there is a lot of fiction being pushed right now, and that is disappointing.  But once we get the spin room under control, once we implement some commonsense solutions for the emergency services division--I believe wholeheartedly that we can fix some issues and make the department more efficient without raising taxes. 

So this is the direction I will continue to go....


Anonymous said...

Nick Gradia is on ECW in a conversation with Jaqueline Rogers Doug Underhill Tom Turner about the library funding, if that's who you mean is spinning it. Not sure of Tom Turner's gig. He was an HR for awhile

They must have summoned him in for some sort of public messaging. They are also tongue in cheek talking about at large commissioners. Not sure of all the public political spin involves with all that.

First, it looks like the usual suspects trying to make you look bad. I think they know if it goes at large you will win with a landslide in the next election.

Maybe Nick doesn't know better.

JUECW is the spin master in scambia between them and PNJ smells like stinky fish.

Anonymous said...

Yes and all that about FAC and the sheriff budget. They were brutal then, I don't think many saw through that rhetoric about the sheriff budget.

Lot of dense people around here. Easy Marks.

Tom Turner said...

Good morning! This is the former HR guy. I figure I better make sure my comments are interpreted as intended rather than as presented in this forum. I fully understand the library has a separate funding source through the MSBU. If I recall their funding is a millage rate based on evaluation and not a fixed dollar amount per "roof top" as is the fire MSBU. One generally increases over time with NO ACTION required by the board and the other requires a specific vote to increase the fixed rate. The comments about the 1st district library were intended to raise the issue of the current five districts ot fiefdoms that control the county. Just listen to the discussions at the board meetings. The commissioner is king of the district. The election pressure is to do what you need in your district and not necessarily the interests of the county. It may be very true that a library is needed in the Beaulah area. I really don't know but the library director is a good one. He manages it has a countywide system but his board is appointed by each district rather than at large. So the politics of making sure there is a branch in every district is immense when a holistic view might place the branches in an entirely different manner to serve the population. There was never a hint that the library funding was fungible cash. As to the fire department, it is pretty clear they are encountering the cash ceiling of their funding that only increases on new buildings. That does not work well with salaries and health insurance increases. They apparently are experiencing turnover and the wage compression issues in the county are large. They exist is all areas. The Sheriff was skillful in his advocacy to get funding for deputy pay. The starting pay for firefighters and medics are relatively low. And after hire the increase is at best an across the board bump. Career ladders based on skills and time are likely needed but they will cost money and there is the rub. You can live with 15 to 20 percent turnover if you want to bear training and recruiting costs as well as the work climate impact. The problem for the fire department is they dont have a sheriff to stand and make the case. Same for the corrections officers in the jail. They were part of the same.local with the sheriff officers until the jail was transferred and they will be seeking the same economic settlement. There are some tough issues to address but my recollection is the primary responsibilities of the county is public safety and infrastructure. Fund this first.

Anonymous said...

Note Ms Rogers is the one who said -- some one else said Tom Turner was getting paid, The he said -- she said is strong with this one, her favorite pastime is trying to smear D1 commissioner.

Anonymous said...

Looks like an online brawl broke out under that Library D1 thread..

Jeff Bergosh said...

Tom, thanks for the comments hope retirement is treating you well. If your read part I of my fixing the fire service budget blog, you would know that I support a fire MSTU rather than an MSBU for this very reason, so that the increases are larger and more predictable. We can do this by assessing a millage rate in the first year that mimics what the MSBU would have generated, thus no tax increase per se--just a commonsense shifting of the burden. I disagree with your assessment of the Sheriff's tactics. They were unprofessional, personalized, and vicious toward the BCC--and his reputation took BIG damage from that. The stunts with the SROs and elimination of funeral escorts also wounded his brand. When he endorsed a candidate for mayor, that endorsed candidate lost badly--so although he got a fair four-year deal for his men (which I helped negotiate as chairman in mediation sessions)he took damage as well and his LETF process got fixed in the process which is a good thing. So yes, to him I suppose the ends justify the means but he could have got there without going scorched earth. But he is leaving and the next sheriff and the board will have a MUCH better working relationship I predict. Now, as to the fire service; You may be unaware but the volunteers are being squeezed out slowly, and this is by design apparently--so the department can grow itself. I do not support this. We need to open the supply line to volunteers to help man the stations and also we need to treat the volunteers as equals, not fourth-class citizens which is currently what is happening. If we support the career with volunteer, switch to the MSTU, purchase EMS equipment with LOST not General Fund revenue--we can get the career folks raises without raising taxes. I'm working that plan right now. And finally, yes, there exists a bit of "ward politics" in Escambia and that is a function of the way we are elected. But we are making strides to take a more county-wide approach to problem solving. I am doing this and the others are as well. We're getting better. Have a nice day.

Tom Turner said...

Thanks Jeff for your additional comments. I know we had real issues with volunteers in recruiting and consistent reporting. Ferry Pass was a true mess. Beulah had a reputation, at league from what I recall, of having good turnout and responsiveness
However as you become more urban in nature I think too will see that the volinteer route will not be sufficient . Your citizens will expect prompter responses. But I do hope you are successful in freeing up dollars to pay fire fighters. They deserve it and if you cant recruit replacements the primary role of public safety is being neglected.