Broward County sheriff speaks to Citrus County task force

Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti (insert, at left) speaks to the Citrus County Public Safety Initiative Task Force on Feb. 18 in Lecanto
Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti (insert, at left) speaks to the Citrus County Public Safety Initiative Task Force on Feb. 18 in Lecanto (February 18, 2011).

For Broward County, the path to savings was through the consolidation of the sheriff's office, fire services and emergency medical services into a single agency.

For Citrus County, the path to savings remains to be seen.

Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti on Friday laid out his county's blueprint in Lecanto to the Citrus County Public Safety Task Force. His county merged its sheriff, fire and EMS under one umbrella seven years ago. It began in 2001 following a consultant study by Tri Data, and the 9/11 report issued by the U.S. government and a task force much like Citrus County's.

In 2003, Broward County decided to merge the three agencies, and what followed was the merging of the law enforcement functions in 14 cities and a number of city fire departments, including the county's fire departments. "Unity of command under one umbrella makes sense," Lamberti told the Citrus County Public Safety Task Force.

"It's about saving money and service delivery, and it serves the people better," Lamberti said.

One cost savings example includes the elimination of duplication of agencies and functions, such as payroll and fleet service. Another benefit from the merger is better service delivery. "We train together, respond together and plan together," Lamberti said. Another example of savings is in emergency management. "It's seamless and unified."

For law enforcement, one benefit of the merger for the sheriff's office is a "real paramedic" on its SWAT team, not just a law enforcement officer with a paramedic certificate, he said.

The psychological impact of merging has taken some getting used to,  he said. For fire services, which has EMS under its auspices, there was concern about what fire services would become under the merger. One Broward County fire chief told task force members that it was like putting a square peg in a round hole. "We didn't know if we would carry a gun and a fire hose," she said. Eventually, however, the functions have become more compatible and everyone knows what they must now do, she said.

Funding for the Broward County merger comes from the county's General Fund, contracts with seven Broward cities, a MSTU (Municipal Service Taxing Unit) district, enterprise funds from Port Everglades and the county's airport and regional services. The fire services budget, which includes EMS, is about $86 million this year, Lamberti said.

Impact fees also support fire services, and that includes construction costs. That ad valorem tax is paid at the city or municipal level, Lamberti said.

The public's perception of the merger has been well received, and he said that there has been more interaction with the community and acceptance by the community. In addition, Lamberti said, municipalities have saved money by the merger.

Another Broward fire services chief said of the merger, "The deeper I got into it, the more the merger made sense. We saved about $1 million in the first year of the merger." He added that there have been savings in jobs and benefits.

As for coverage, Broward County, with a population about 1.8 million, has 110 fire departments now, and the county's response time to a fire is about 4 minutes.

Task force member David Conant of Beverly Hills asked Lamberti why all the fire departments in Broward County haven't merged. "It's usually the larger cities," Lamberti said. Lamberti said those cities want to keep their own fire departments.

Fire unions have also embraced the merger. The alternative was to the "annexed into extinction," Lamberti said. The unions see the merger as "one voice for all disciplines," Lamberti said.

The next meeting of the Citrus County Public Safety Task Force will be at 9 a.m. in Room 166 in the Lecanto Government Complex.