Public Safety task force gets feet wet in first session

Citrus County's Public Safety Initiative Task Force members got their feet wet on Friday during the first meeting of that body.

Formed to investigate the possibility of consolidating the sheriff's office, fire services and EMS under one super-agency, the 17-member task force heard from each of those agencies during a three-hour session in Lecanto.

The task force will meet each month, with the last session scheduled for April 1. After that, the force's recommendations will be presented before the Citrus County Commission, which will discuss the recommendations and make a decision as to whether or not to proceed.

“The mission of the task force is to study and recommend options for provision of public safety across all disciplines, including funding options,” said County Commissioner Joe Meek, co-chairman of the task force with Sheriff Jeff Dawsy.

“It’s immediate objectives are, first, to study the concept of bringing fire, EMS and law enforcement under one umbrella. The second will be to recommend the funding options of our county public safety. And the third will be to evaluate and review a five-year plan from the recommendations.”

Sheriff Dawsy, Fire Services Chief Larry Morabito and Naturecoast EMS head Mike Hall each outlined their agency's mission, funding and functions to the task force. All three agencies' presentations served as a "get acquainted" briefing for task force members.

"This (public safety) is the most important thing a government does," Sheriff Dawsy told the task force members. And, he said, "You're not going to be saving money up front. Fire is underfunded - that budget has to go up. Government cannot keep functioning the way it has been functioning."

Dawsy said the task force will be looking at funding resources, and cautioned that any decision made carries with it a level of risk.

For the Sheriff's Office, Dawsy said, consolidation has a goal. He used the assumption of police duties of Crystal River and Inverness as examples of that consolidation, as well as assuming enforcement of animal control regulations for the county.

The Sheriff's Office has seen an increase of police actions during the past few years, and noted that the dispatch center is, he said, "in crisis" because of the enormous workload placed on that arm of the Sheriff's Office. He said that his agency must plan for obsolescence, which is not a cheap proposition.

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office is a complex organization, Dawsy said, and while technology can replace people, it's still a manpower-laden endeavor.

Giving a nod to the lack of shrinking funding for his agency, Citrus County Fire Services Chief Larry Morabito said that finding volunteer firefighters is a continual process, with mixed results. This has caused a strain in operating the county's five fire stations, he noted.

Obsolesence is also is a concern in his department, and replacement of equipment is, as with the CCSO, not cheap.

Morabito also said that the lack of firefighters has mean that, of the more than 5,500 businesses in Citrus County, annual fire inspections have been lagging behind.

Morabito also said that his five-year plan, recently presented to the county commission, will help the county obtain better fire service. But, he said, it will take more money to fully implement it.

Also to be considered, he said, is the conditions of the fire stations themselves. "Stations are 50 to 60 years old in some cases," Morabito said. Others are in disrepair or incapable of housing full-time firefighters.

Funding for fire services comes from ad valorem taxes, and of a 10-mill allowance, the fire district currently only has .4566 mills of an allowable 1 mill. Currently, fire services has a $5.1 million budget - but is $1 million short.

Some task force members suggested that users of the three agencies' services might be billable to an individual's insurance, but County Attorney Richard Wesch said that a state statute strictly prohibited that.

Emergency Medical Services is a bright spot, even though it receives 9.9 percent of its funding from the county ($615,000). Even so, the amount of the county's subsidy has been steadily shrinking as it becomes more profitable since its inception.

Naturecoast EMS head Mike Hall's enthusiasm about his agency was evident as he outlined procedures, approaches and training as some of the key accomplishments of his agency. He also outlined some of the things coming down the pike from Congress' mandated healthcare reform.

These things include universal access to the medical system, pay per performance, accountable healthcare organizations, greater accountability for healthcare providers and more. He noted, however, that there might be a shortage of primary care doctors, as well.

Hall said the agency's funding also comes from billing individuals' private insurance companies and $673,000 from federal grants since 2003.

During public discussion, Duane Dueker, president of the Sugarmill Woods Association, said that the task force might also consider other counties which have consolidated their public safety agencies into one agency, rather than just Broward County, which has a model of interest to Citrus County in which all three agencies have been integrated into a single agency.

"Broward County has a population of 1 million," Dueker said. He said that that county has moved away from volunteer firefighters and toward full-time firefighters. He also said that any funding of Citrus County's consolidated agency should be proportionate.

"We have three organizations running well, except one is underfunded," Dueker said. He said he was concerned that "smashing together" three organizations that are working well should not be considered as an automatic approval.

Another man said that the county should consider that each agency in any new "umbrella" setup should keep its focus on the area for which it is responsible. "Don't try to make anyone a jack of all trades," he said.

The task force will again meet at 9 a.m. Friday, Feb. 18, at the Lecanto Government Building. Task force members will hear how Broward County was able to consolidate law enforcement, fire services and EMS into a single agency.