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Water doused on fire talks

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By Lou Elliott Jones

The Chiefland and Cedar Key commissions’ suggestions that the Levy County Commission hold a public workshop on fire operations is unanimously tabled until those officials first talk with County Fire Chief David Knowles. 

“Allow him the opportunity to sit down with you,” Commissioner Marsha Drew of Yankeetown (R-District 3) told Norm Fugate, Chiefland and Cedar Key city attorney, and Chiefland Vice Mayor Teresa Barron. 

The discussion came right after the county commission unanimously approved agreements that would absorb the Rosewood and Yankeetown volunteer fire departments into county fire operations in the Department of Public Safety.

The discussion grew contentious after the commission approved terminating its contract with the Town of Otter Creek for fire services for District 13, the unincorporated area around Otter Creek. 

That’s because the town does not have a fire department. It outsources its service and District 13 service to the City of Chiefland.

“It appears the money has been used to fund fire services in the city of Otter Creek,” said Commission Chair Danny Stevens of Williston (D-District 5). He said the county has asked the town to not do a “direct pass through” of county contract money to Chiefland, but was ignored. 

Knowles presented a list of calls answered in the county by Chiefland. 

Drew said the list showed that out of 45 calls in the past two years, 28 were inside the town limits and 17 were in the county. Based on the the county’s payment to Otter Creek “that would be about $4,500 per call,” Drew said. “We have not been getting our money’s worth.”

She said the Otter Creek contract can be terminated, “if we feel as a board this is not being done correctly.” 

Barron complained the termination was news to her, “This issue has not been brought up to the city (of Chiefland) or Otter Creek.”

Fugate argued that the county was getting better fire service for their money. 

The problem, Drew said, is “we’ve never been responsible for service inside the Otter Creek.” 

“The municipality,” Stevens finished for her. 

“They’re not paying anything for their service, they’re getting it free,” Drew said. “And the county taxpayers are paying for that.”

County Coordinator Fred Moody said the county fire money is not to be mingled with other funds, but that Chiefland has put it into their general fund on occasion. “That’s why they set up separate funds for the fire budget this year,” he said. 

Barron, who was on the agenda to ask for the fire workshop, pressed the request, but Fugate went on the offensive asking multiple times. 

Barron also criticized the proposed increase in the county fire assessment from $40 per residence to $110 per year. 

Fugate pressed that point, saying the higher assessment that would increase the county fire budget by 83 percent. “That’s almost double.” 

“The missing component is the public needs to understand,” Fugate said. 

Stevens said Fugate’s speech was “full of jabs, cuts and accusations.” He said the call for public debate was not right. “That would suggest this board is doing something wrong and, Norm, that is wrong.”

He reminded Fugate that the county has a fire board with representatives from each municipality who should be reporting back to their officials. 

Drew said other fire liaisons for communities have sat down and talked with Knowles. “And every other community that has done that is satisfied.”

“We have been committeeing and workshopping for 10 years for this,” she said. 

She foresaw one problem with a workshop that brought applause and hoots from those in attendance. 

“If we have a workshop with all the municipal officials we’ll have to get 45 people in a room and we’ll never get anything done with 45 politicians in a room.”