For Fire Services, It's back to the future

Members of Citrus County Fire Services are sworn in on Oct. 1, 2011 to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. At far right is then-Fire Chief Larry Morabito (Photo by Robby Douglas)
Members of Citrus County Fire Services are sworn in on Oct. 1, 2011 to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. At far right is then-Fire Chief Larry Morabito (Photo by Robby Douglas)

Six years after calling on then-Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy to take over fire services from the county in 2011, the Citrus County Commission has called it back into the fold.

The commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday during a special meeting to take fire services back, after complaining they had received little or no information that board members had requested.

Citrus County Sheriff Mike Prendergast told media he was not surprised by the commission's vote, and has been low-key about the board's decision. On his facebook page, Prendergast said, "Today, the Citrus County Board of County Commissioners voted to take back Fire Rescue, which has been under the Sheriff's Office since 2011. We are very proud of the huge strides and accomplishments we've made in the 5+ years since we were given Fire Rescue by the County Commission.

"We strongly believe we have enhanced fire services in our community. In our eyes, we will always be "One Team with One Mission". We will work very closely with the County to ensure a smooth transition of services, with an anticipated turnover date of Oct. 1, 2017," Sheriff Prendergast wrote. And during the May 9 special meeting of the county commission, Prendergast said that it was his impression that the May 9 meeting was not about budgeting, because the Sheriff's Office deadline was in early June.

Oct. 1, 2017 is the start of the new Fiscal Year, so the county will have to move some funds around before that budget takes effect.

At this point, both the sheriff and county commission will have their work cut out to unwind the ties that bound fire services and EMS to the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. The way ahead now is to go back to the way things used to be before the CCSO-fire merger, but hopefully better.

The seemingly sudden decision by the commission to move fire services and EMS back to the county's direct supervision will also be the ironic final outcome of the efforts of government, business, prominent citizens and a host of others who who helped make the CCSO-fire merger a reality in 2011. In our view, that is scant thanks.

What all this means for taxpayers is yet to be determined. If it is true that history is a good teacher, lessons that led up to the CCSO-fire services merger are worthy of revisiting, which we will do now, even as the county commission re-assumes the mantle of fire services and EMS.

First, let's take a look to where the county's Fire Services has been since 2011.

The Citrus County Commission on Jan. 11, 2011 authorized the formation of a Public Initiative Task Force that could place all of the county’s public safety agencies under the Sheriff’s Office.

The task force, a creation of the county commission and populated by a cross-section of leading county business people and residents, sought to model public safety after Broward County’s concept, which would put law enforcement, fire and EMS functions under a single umbrella.

County commissioners said such a concept would increase efficiency and cut costs for all of those agencies.

The task force set an agenda on Jan. 31, 2011 for meeting dates and topics as it began an investigation into combining law enforcement, fire rescue and emergency medical services into one department under the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office.

The meetings were open to the public, and were co-chaired by Sheriff Dawsy and then-Citrus County Commission Chairman Joe Meek.

The first meeting of the 17-member task force was on Feb. 4, 2011, and the last session was set for April 1. Public Safety Initiative Task Force members got their feet wet, hearing from each of those agencies during a three-hour session in Lecanto at the Government Building. That discussion showed what the road ahead would have to address.

But, for Citrus County Commissioner Winn Webb, the first meeting was a cause for concern. After that task force meeting, Commissioner Webb had some serious questions about the direction of the Public Safety Task Force. He told his fellow county commissioners that he wondered if the combining of the sheriff's office, fire services and emergency medical services was a "done deal."

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

For Broward County, which had already been through the same consolidation of services as Citrus County was facing, 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, that path to savings had yet to be seen.

Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti laid out his county's blueprint in Lecanto during a meeting of the Citrus County Public Safety Task Force. He said his county merged its sheriff, fire and EMS functions 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, Lamberti told the task force. "Unity of command under one umbrella makes sense," Lamberti told the Citrus County Public Safety Task Force.

That scenario was not unlike Citrus County, where Sheriff Dawsy had added to his plate the law enforcement functions for Inverness and Crystal River, Animal Control. And, in 2011, the county commission asked him to take on fire services and EMS functions.

Citrus County Sheriff Jeff Dawsy speaks to county commissioners on April 12, 2011

At long last, the task force's recommendations were presented to the county commission by then-Sheriff Jeff Dawsy on April 12, 2011. After hearing those task force recommendations, the board voted 3-1 to accept them. But commissioners also tasked Dawsy with figuring out what a combined law enforcement and fire services office would look like, and to then come up with a budget for it.

Commissioner Meek, while acknowledging that the fire district millage rate might be needed to adequately fund fire services, said, "This is not about raising taxes, but improving services. Consolidation doesn't drive the funding." Meek also said the task force did see some value in consolidation.

Other funding mechanisms have also been suggested besides raising the fire millage rate - MSBU's (Municipal Service Benefit Unit) and MSTU's (Municipal Services Taxing Units), he said.

Finally, it came down these points at the county commission's June 14 meeting, where the commission voted 3-2 to allow the merger of fire services with the Citrus County Sheriff's Office. Commissioners JJ Kenney and Webb voted nay.

The plan, presented to the commission by Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, is one which promised, among other things:

  • Full-time staffing of eight county fire stations (currently only available at five stations)

  • About 40 volunteers from the sheriff's deputy corps

  • Shared resources between the CCSO and fire services

  • Improvement in the recruitment, retraining and training of both fire and CCSO personnel

  • Professional fire instruction through an arrangement with the Withlacoochee Training Institute in Inverness

  • Instant enhancement for public safety

Sheriff Dawsy said that fire inspectors would serve in two capacities: scheduling of fire inspections and providing command and control around the clock. Dawsy also suggested that there would be a savings in the consolidation of administration functions that would benefit both organizations.

Also under the plan, the number of full-time firefighters would rise from 45 to 54 after implementation of the merger. Increased manpower would also allow improved fire response time for the Sugamaill Woods, Floral City and DeRosa areas, Dawsy said.

The cost of the merger would be $6,759,000. Part of that money would likely come from an expected increase in the Fire District millage rate, a decision that had not yet, at that time, been finalized by the county commission.

On Oct. 1, in a simple ceremony at the Curtis Peterson Auditorium in Lecanto, the Citrus County Sheriff’s Office and Citrus County Fire Services became a single entity during a special swearing-in ceremony at Curtis Peterson Auditorium in Lecanto.

Families and friends of firefighters were on hand for the ceremony, an historic first for Citrus County, and of note throughout the state of Florida and the nation.

“We’re extremely excited to make fire services part of our family,” Sheriff Dawsy said at that ceremony. “Our one main mission is the citizenry of our community. We will never forget that – from fire services to the law enforcement contingent, it is ‘One Team, One Mission’ – and that is the people we serve.”

According to CCSO spokesperson Gail Tierney, the merger included the addition of about 200 former county career and volunteer firefighters, drivers, inspectors and support staff, as well as coordinators for both training and volunteers.

And that's the story of the union of the Sheriff's Office, fire services and EMS from 2011 to 2017. After fire services is brought back, no doubt those public safety units will continue to work together, because public safety demands it.

At the same time, however, county government will have to prove it is a better leader than a spectator, and that it can put taxpayers' money where its mouth is.

VIDEO from May 9, 2017 of new direction for Fire Services: