Fire Merger 06.27.16
Recently the City of Stuart voted not to proceed with the Merger discussions with Martin County. For years the MCTA has pushed for a merger between the City and the County. The reason for the push...taxpayer savings. In 2014 the MCTA made the prediction that there would be over $1,000,000 in savings immediately if the two departments merged and this savings would only increase over time. Since that time a consultant was hired and the merger study began. As the information began to unfold it became clear the savings would be much greater than $1,000,000.
As with any study, the devil is in the details. When the consultants plugged in average assessments, they used the same average for the city and the county. Unfortunately this is not reality. They also used an incorrect number for the costs currently associated with the City of Stuart’s fire/rescue department.
However, the greatest void in the study was the lack of salary and benefit package comparisons between the two departments. In the past few years the City of Stuart has trimmed their operations and developed a more efficient model of operations. Additionally, they realized that nearly 50% of the incorporated properties were not paying into the system due to low assessments. This realization caused the passage of a fire assessment tax that would require all properties to pay into the department.
According to the studies we have reviewed, the County pays their Fire/Rescue department an average of about 20% more per employee than the City of Stuart. This is a significant difference, and contributes to the imbalance between the departments.
It would have been helpful if the study would have considered these differences and made recommendations to balance these salaries and benefits. Additionally, the study should have used real numbers for the average property assessments. If that would have been taken into consideration the discussions about the merger might have continued. Instead, basically, the study simply concentrated on closing stations, sometimes without enough thought to response times.
The MCTA continues to believe that the potential merger could produce huge savings if done properly. However, to accomplish that, the consultant must review the discrepancies discussed above. Real assessment numbers and salary/benefit discussions have got to be included in the study. Additionally, management and operations must be a part of the discussions. It is not about simply closing stations.
Interestingly, nearly 80% of all calls into fire/rescue are medically related. This statistic alone should cause a paradigm shift in the manner the departments operate.
The MCTA believes there are considerable savings that could occur without a reduction of the level of service if the departments were merged in a logical professional manner.
And finally, the City of Stuart and Martin County must begin to develop a better, more trusting environment between each other. There will never be any mutually beneficial projects to consider if there is no trust. And ultimately, at the end of the day, this costs all the taxpayers more money.